1:00 PM ET, December 11, 2011
Nissan Stadium, Nashville, TN
After an embarrassing loss at the end of October, the legitimacy of the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl hopes seemed in question.
Four consecutive wins since have the team reminiscing about its championship run of two seasons ago.
Seeking a season-best fifth straight victory Sunday, the Saints visit a Tennessee Titans team that quietly remains in the thick of the AFC playoff picture.
After opening the season 4-1, New Orleans lost two of three, including a stunning 31-21 defeat at hapless St. Louis on Oct. 30. That defeat, however, seemed to serve as a wakeup call for the Saints (9-3), who have built their NFC South lead to two games while outscoring opponents 133-80 during their winning streak.
"The loss to St. Louis left us in the middle of the division with Atlanta and Tampa (Bay)," quarterback Drew Brees said. " ... November is when you begin to separate yourselves from the pack, and we wanted to be playing our best football."
New Orleans is three games behind conference-leading Green Bay and one behind San Francisco for the No. 2 seed.
"We feel like we're one of the elite teams," receiver Lance Moore said. "Obviously, we have the third-best record in the NFC, but we can't worry about what Green Bay's doing. We can't worry about what San Francisco's doing. We have to worry about what we're doing."
Brees, whose 4,031 passing yards lead the league, is the first quarterback in NFL history throw for 4,000 yards in the first 12 games of a season.
New Orleans is scoring 32.8 points per game, nearly identical to the 31.9 it averaged on its way to winning Super Bowl XLIV.
"For the guys who were here in 2009, after (Sunday's) game and the way we've played the last four weeks, there's a little bit of that feeling like we've kind of flipped that switch and we've kind of hit that next gear," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "Now it's up to us to see if we can maintain that level."
While their offense continues to roll, the Saints' defense has been shaky at times. New Orleans ranks 27th in the league with 378.8 yards allowed.
That should bode well for the Titans' Chris Johnson, who appears to have finally returned to form following a slow start following his extended holdout. He ran for a season-best 190 yards during a 23-17 win over Tampa Bay on Nov. 27 and rushed for 153 yards and two TDs in a 23-17 victory at Buffalo last week.
"It's real big because at the beginning of the season the passing game carried us, and now it's time for the running game to step it up," said Johnson, who rushed for 509 yards in the first 10 games. "Anytime you want to build a full team, and hopefully make it to the Super Bowl, you're going to have to have all the elements."
Second-place Tennessee, one of four 7-5 teams vying for a wild card berth, sits two games in back of first-place Houston in the AFC South. The Titans have won two straight and three of four, and could benefit from a fresher Johnson down the stretch due to the veteran's absence prior to the season.
"That's what we're hoping," coach Mike Munchak said. "We're looking at it that way now, that it's an advantage for us coming down the stretch, that we become the best running football team the last eight weeks of the season and hopefully into the playoffs. That's how we have to spin it when you struggle early."
Slowing down New Orleans surely down won't be easy, and Tennessee could have an especially hard time covering Jimmy Graham.
The tight end caught eight passes for 89 yards versus the Lions and leads the NFL at his position with 1,046 yards. He is the first tight end in team history to post a 1,000-yard season.
"(Brees) is a surgeon out there and makes me look good," said Graham, on pace to break Kellen Winslow's NFL record of 1,290 yards by a tight end set in 1980. "When your quarterback has confidence in you, it raises you to a new level."
The Saints have dropped four straight to the Houston Oilers/Titans franchise -- most recently suffering a 31-14 loss Sept. 24, 2007, during which Brees was picked off a career high-tying four times.
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|Avg Points Allowed||22.0||19.3|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||NO|
|Rush Yds Allowed||NO|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Tennessee leads 2-1|
|Sep 24, 2007||NO 14, TEN 31|
|Sep 21, 2003||NO 12, @TEN 27|