Best and worst of NFL Sunday: The New Orleans Saints’ extreme makeover

New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara (41) rushes past Buffalo Bills' Jordan Poyer (21) and Eddie Yarbrough (54) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Welcome to your Monday roundup of the best and worst of NFL Sunday — by which we mean the single very best thing and single very worst thing. Because the stuff in the middle doesn’t matter, really.

THE VERY BEST THING ABOUT THE NFL THIS WEEK: The upside-down New Orleans Saints. It’s hard to think of a team in recent history that has so completely changed its identity as Drew Brees’s — or, I guess, Mark Ingram’s — New Orleans Saints. Since Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints have been one of the most reliably pass-happy teams in the NFL. They’ve also routinely — every year save three — been ranked in the bottom third of the league in yards against.

That’s basically who the Saints are, and have been for more than a decade. They pass a lot, they give up a lot of yards, they end up in shootouts and they win a little more than half the time. It’s resulted in five trips to the playoffs and one Super Bowl… so not exactly a terrible formula, but certainly a risky one.

The 2017 Saints, though, are not just a different team — they might as well belong to a different era. The 2017 Saints pass just 52.74 per cent of the time, putting them 28th in the league. And that number has been falling drastically as the Saints keep winning by pounding Ingram and mixing in change-of-pace rookie Alvin Kamara.

Over their past three games, the Saints have passed on just 43 per cent of plays. In Sunday’s blowout in Buffalo, that number was down to 34.25 percent — on one 95-yard touchdown drive they didn’t throw a single pass.

Yeah, blowouts change strategy, but all the same, when a team runs for the third-most single-game yards in history that goes beyond game script.

It also takes pressure off a defence that — bolstered by rookie shutdown corner Marcus Lattimore — ranks in the top 10 in both yards allowed (eighth) and points allowed (fifth).

Whatever you think of the shoot-it-out Saints, and they were fun to watch, it’s equally fascinating to watch Sean Payton take his team in a completely different direction with, save for two standout rookies, basically the same personnel.

If there’s an early coach-of-the-year battle, it’s got to be between Payton and the Los Angeles Rams‘ Sean McVay. While McVay has the built-in advantage of being a fresh voice, Payton is the same voice talking to the same players — he’s just saying different things, and it’s working.

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Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Breaking down NFL Week 10 with Tiki Barber
Originally aired November 13 2017

THE VERY WORST THING ABOUT THE NFL THIS WEEK: Remember when the Calvin Johnson rule started to become a thing, and it seemed like every week there would be one or two plays that defied officiating? Was it a catch? Wasn’t it? Does anybody even know what a catch is? Now we take those plays for granted.

The NFL never solved this problem so much as admitted that it’s open to interpretation and moved on to the next by-the-book-but-still-stupid officiating conundrum. And what’s that? Well wait no further — it’s here, and it’s officially a trend. It’s the fumble-the-ball-into-the-end-zone-then-out-of-the-end-zone touchback!

This rule is being enforced correctly, but it’s still dumb. It ends up as fractions of an inch deciding not if a play was a touchdown (that’s fine — fractions of an inch should matter on a touchdown), but rather if a play puts the ball in one team’s hands at the one-inch line, or in the other team’s hands on the 20 going the other way.

As the Bears’ Benny Cunningham found out Sunday, the rule means there are certain situations in which it’s a good idea for an offensive player to not try to score but simply maintain possession. So don’t stretch for the goal line, NFL players — you might lose the possession entirely despite not even being contacted by a defender.

Later the same day, Titans rookie Corey Davis had the same thing happen to him, though admittedly he was at least smacked by a Bengals defender.

Three weeks ago, the Jets lost a winnable game to the Patriots after a touchdown was overturned and a touchback enforced despite the ball being outside the fingers of Austin Sefarian-Jenkins for, oh, about half a second.

Funnily enough, Sefarian-Jenkins regained control of the ball before he went to the ground and maintained control. So while it was a case of the newest dumb NFL rule trend costing the Jets, it actually probably would have passed the Calvin Johnson test. Go figure.