Chicago is where New Orleans’ season has ended the past two years. That city has been much kinder to the Saints’ new featured runner.
The Saints, getting a huge boost on the ground from Chicago native Pierre Thomas, look to avoid another crushing road loss to the Bears when the postseason-hopeful teams meet Thursday night.
There are 11 clubs in the NFC that have records of .500 or better, with New Orleans (7-6) and Chicago (7-6) at the back end of that list.
The Bears have a much better shot at a postseason berth, trailing first-place Minnesota by one game in the NFC North. The Saints are three games behind NFC South-leading Carolina, so their best chance is most likely via a wild card.
A loss at Chicago, though, would virtually end New Orleans’ hopes and it wouldn’t be the first time it suffered a major blow there.
The Bears routed the Saints 39-14 two years ago at Soldier Field in the NFC championship game, and ended their postseason chances with a 33-25 victory in the finale last season.
“They came here twice and we beat them, so I’m going to say we’re probably going to have the advantage,” Chicago nickel back Danieal Manning said. “But we have to go to work and study.”
New Orleans has been a contender largely due to quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton’s pass-heavy offense. But in Chicago, the Saints may have to rely more on the run if the weather makes passing tough.
On Sunday, New Orleans rushed for a season-high 184 yards in a 29-25 win over Atlanta.
With Reggie Bush trying to work his way back from knee surgery and Deuce McAllister showing his age and embroiled in a battle with the NFL over a doping suspension, Thomas has done an outstanding job of keeping the Saints’ running game on track.
Thomas, undrafted after a solid career at Illinois, has rushed for 311 yards and four touchdowns in his last four games, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He’s coming off perhaps the best game of his two-year career, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown to go a long with a seven-yard reception for a score and an 88-yard kickoff return.
Bush added 80 yards rushing on 10 carries, but it’s likely that he’ll be used more in the passing game down the stretch as he continues to strengthen his left knee, leaving Thomas as the primary ball carrier.
“He catches people off balance because you see him in the backfield and he doesn’t look like a big, massive physical running back, but that’s exactly how he plays,” Saints receiver Lance Moore said of Thomas. “He just makes plays and that’s a credit to how hard he’s worked.”
Bears rookie running back Matt Forte will also be facing his hometown team. Forte, who grew up just outside of New Orleans, has been a workhorse for Chicago.
Forte rushed for 69 yards and had 37 receiving in a 23-10 win over Jacksonville on Sunday, giving him 1,476 yards from scrimmage to eclipse Gale Sayers’ record for a Bears rookie (1,374 in 1965).
“I couldn’t even imagine coming in and going past Gale Sayers’ yards as a rookie,” Forte said. “I really don’t even look at stats. I just go out there and play.”
Forte’s success has been a huge help for Chicago, which is hoping quarterback Kyle Orton can return to the form he showed before spraining his ankle against Detroit last month.
He was 20-of-34 with 219 yards, two touchdowns and an interception versus the Jaguars after completing just 49.4 percent of his passes the previous three games. It was a big improvement over his performance at Minnesota a week earlier, when he got picked off three times.
Orton eased some concerns about his ankle, although he did say: “It’s going to be a yearlong battle.”
His Saints counterpart, Brees, was 18-of-32 for 230 yards and two TDs against the Falcons. Brees surpassed the 4,000-yard mark in passing for the third consecutive season, and has 26 TDs while throwing 14 picks.
Chicago, though, has been strong against the pass the past three weeks, holding opponents to 208.0 yards per game. The Bears have six picks in that span, while giving up two TDs.
Chicago held Jacksonville to 176 yards passing, sacking David Garrard three times.
“We all hope it’s a turnaround game,” Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. “We all hope it’s a step in the right direction, but we’ll find out Thursday. We’ll find out if we can build on this.”