Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have climbed their way back into contention after stumbling through a winless September.
While the Saints figure to go as far as Brees can take them, a sustained boost from their ground game could prove crucial down the stretch.
Looking to continue its recent domination in November, New Orleans tries for a season-best third consecutive win Sunday as it visits the struggling Oakland Raiders.
Though it looked like the Saints (4-5) could be in for a long year after opening 0-4, they suddenly find themselves on the verge of getting back to .500.
"That's something we feel like we're capable of and we envisioned being able to do that, because we know the type of team we have," said Brees, who's thrown 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions during the team's 4-1 stretch. "We knew we dug ourselves a hole. We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we also knew we have the right type of people. ... Good things are starting to happen."
New Orleans is coming off its most impressive effort of the season, beating previously undefeated Atlanta 31-27 last Sunday. Brees threw for 298 yards and three TDs while the beleaguered defense, which allowed more than 400 yards for the ninth time in as many games and is still on pace to yield the most yards in NFL history, at least limited the Falcons to 46 rushing yards and came up with a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter.
That helped secure the Saints' 13th consecutive victory in November dating to 2009.
"This win that we had (last Sunday) was a direct result of how hard this team has worked from Day 1, when I wasn't here," said interim coach Joe Vitt, who's gone 2-1 since returning from a six-game bounty-related suspension. "This team has weathered the storm, stuck together and not pointed fingers, and they are trying to get better every day."
After rushing for 140 yards in a 28-13 win over Philadelphia in Week 9, New Orleans compiled 148 on a season-high 29 attempts last weekend.
Running the ball often seems to make a world of difference for the Saints, who have gone 27-4 since the start of 2010 when their backs get at least 21 carries compared to 1-9 with 20 or fewer.
"We're playing more together," left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "We're just fighting to play more consistent up front. At the end of the day, the first few weeks, we weren't getting the job done. We had too many breakdowns. If we continue to get this running game going, we can open up our playbook a little bit more."
After Chris Ivory didn't play in the team's first seven games, he's recorded 120 rushing yards on 7.1 per carry and two TDs in the last two. He could be in for another big day, especially with Darren Sproles (broken hand) potentially out for a third consecutive week.
"He's a beast," Brees said of Ivory. "He's a rare combination of speed and power."
Raiders running back Darren McFadden, meanwhile, could miss a second straight game with a sprained ankle, although Oakland (3-6) appears to have much bigger problems on its hands.
The Raiders fell 42-32 at home to Tampa Bay on Nov. 4 - yielding 278 rushing yards - then matched a franchise record for points allowed last Sunday in a 55-20 rout at the hands of Baltimore.
Carson Palmer threw for 368 yards with two TDs but the defense couldn't get off the field.
"That outcome was unacceptable," said first-year coach Dennis Allen, who spent five seasons as a Saints assistant from 2006-10. "We have to be better than that.
"I wish there was a magical answer. I know everybody wants a magical, 'This is the solution,' but at the end of the day, and I've said this over and over, it's about us doing our job the right way every single time. And when we develop that consistency, when we've had that consistency, we've played well in all three phases. But that's the key to having success."
In addition to the Saints' suddenly formidable rushing attack, the Raiders could have their hands full with tight end Jimmy Graham. The 6-foot-7 Pro Bowler hauled in seven receptions for a career-best 146 yards and two TDs last weekend, giving him four scores in his last three contests.
Brees, who's thrown at least one TD pass in a league-record 52 straight games, completed 26 of 30 passes for 320 yards and three TDs as New Orleans cruised 34-3 in the last matchup in this series in 2008. The All-Pro QB has 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions while winning six straight starts against Oakland with the Saints and San Diego.
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