Saints' passing game clicking at right time

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees says the Saints are in "crunch time." Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

Their fans like to say the New Orleans Saints are flying beneath the radar, but that’s simply not true.

There might have been a bit of turbulence on takeoff, and the rise to 30 points a game took longer than expected. But in the last month, the bell has sounded indicating the Saints are free to move about the cabin, all over the field and maybe even straight back to the Super Bowl.

“Just kind of hitting our stride,’’ New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. “Midseason form is what you guys like to call it. But we’re getting into crunch time here. This is December. These are the games you want to remember. These are the games that kind of define your season in a lot of ways where you fit into the whole playoff picture. You want to play your best football in this stretch.’’

That’s precisely what the Saints have been doing. They’ve won their last five games and scored 30 or more points in each of the last four games. Brees has thrown for more than 300 yards in four of the last five games, and Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are breaking free with regularity on deep routes.

It’s starting to look a lot like last season, when the Saints were lighting up scoreboards and winning the Super Bowl. The early-season panic that swept Bourbon Street when the Saints were looking only ordinary on offense has faded with each touchdown in the five-game winning streak. The realization is setting in that the 9-3 Saints are right on the heels of the 10-2 Falcons in the NFC South.

The two teams play each other Dec. 27 in a game that could go a long way in deciding the division. But there are things to take care of before that. The Saints host St. Louis on Sunday and travel to Baltimore next week. The Falcons are pretty much guaranteed a win at Carolina on Sunday, and they have to fly cross-country to Seattle next week.

All the Saints can do at this point is take care of themselves, and recent events have put them in a prime position to do this. In some ways, the Saints are in a better spot now than they were a year ago. Last season, they started 13-0, lost their final three regular-season games and sort of limped into the playoffs.

This season, at least on offense, the Saints appear to be headed for the peak -- or at least deep down the field -- at the right moment. The deep passing game is prospering when it matters most. Meachem has at least one catch for more than 50 yards in the last two games. Henderson, who had a 57-yard catch in a Thanksgiving victory at Dallas, also seems to be emerging at the right time.

Why is the deep passing game suddenly working so well? Coach Sean Payton points first to Brees.

“He’s playing at a high level,’’ Payton said. “He’s playing very efficiently. Each week we keep looking at opportunities for our players and it varies where the shot plays go. Meachem had a few this past week and Devery at Dallas. It’s something in each plan where we want to aggressively get the ball down the field.’’

Early in the year, when Brees and the offense weren’t putting up huge numbers, conspiracy theories were flying. That's understandable -- Brees was on the cover of this year’s “Madden’’ video game, and New Orleans is a town that believes in voodoo and curses. Theories were also flying that Brees was struggling because he banged up his knee in a home loss to Atlanta and wore a brace for a few weeks. There were even rumors that Brees was playing despite major knee damage.

But all that was untrue, and the talk of the “Madden Curse’’ has pretty much disappeared over the last month. Brees is back to the Brees of old, and the strongest proof of that came this week when the quarterback was asked whether he feels he’s been playing better. Keep in mind, there generally is not a person more critical of Brees than Brees. But even the quarterback is willing to admit he believes he’s playing better these days.

“I do,’’ Brees said. “I feel like early on for whatever reason some of the breaks weren’t going my way. I wasn’t quite as sharp as I wanted to be. I think a lot of that was timing and just getting into it and getting going again.’’

But the surge by New Orleans’ offense isn’t simply due to Brees. There are reasons that Meachem and Henderson suddenly are getting open downfield and Marques Colston consistently is getting open in the medium-range passing game and the red zone.

“I think we’re running the ball a little better in this last quarter of the season, if you look at it statistically,’’ Payton said. “If you’re able to do that, you’re able to get some of the looks that you would prefer in regards to your down-the-field shots.”

As long as Payton is coaching this team, the Saints never will be perceived as a running team. But Payton will be the first to tell you that the running game is an important part of his offense and that he’s always seeking some sort of balance between the run and the pass.

He’s found it in a very unlikely place -- undrafted rookie running back Chris Ivory. With top two running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas hurt for much of this season, the Saints were searching for some consistency out of the backfield early on. Defenses weren’t even worrying about the running game.

Ivory broke off a 55-yard touchdown run in last week’s win at Cincinnati, and he’s run for five touchdowns in the last three games. Bush has returned from a broken leg to play in the last two games, although the Saints are taking a very gradual approach to getting him involved in the offense.

The news keeps getting better. Thomas hasn’t played since September because of an ankle injury, but it appears he might return Sunday. Look for Thomas to be worked in slowly, like Bush, and for Ivory to keep getting the bulk of the carries, at least for the short term.

But, come the final weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs, the Saints might have three strong options out of the backfield. That’s good news for the running game. But it might be even better news for the passing game and the entire offense.

“As you effectively run the ball, it’s a little bit harder to sit in the same soft zone coverage and two-deep safety looks,’’ Payton said. “I think it all goes hand-in-hand. Our ability to run the ball efficiently and then come off of it with play-action or a drop-back pass, I think that goes together.”