CHICAGO -- Ever since the New Orleans Saints became a regular contender in the NFL, one of the few things they had not been able to accomplish was a victory over the Bears in Chicago, and a key reason for it was the ability of the Bears' defense to force turnovers.
Heading into Sunday's game at Soldier Field, the Saints were reminded of those issues, reinforced in the fact that the Bears were leading the NFL in takeaways.
So, with a somewhat careful, conservative game plan and boffo performances by quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham, the Saints put the Chicago issue in their rearview mirror by beating the Bears, 26-18, Sunday, in a game that really was not that close.
Statistics told a strange story; the Bears outgained the Saints by nearly 100 yards. But New Orleans never gave up the ball except after a score or a punt, managed a 12-minute edge in time of possession, and really was never in jeopardy of losing the game.
"We did what we needed to do," said Sean Payton, the New Orleans coach. "It wasn't always perfect, but it was good enough."
New Orleans had lost three straight at Soldier Field, including the 2006 NFC championship game, and turned the ball over nine times in those defeats. Payton said teams often give "lip service" to ball security but for this game, he did some things with his game plan to reinforce it.
"We had to do some things that we hadn't done before," he said, without amplifying.
In addition to using extra blockers to hold out the Bears' pass rush, the Saints exhibited their new-look defense.
Clearly, New Orleans, which last year allowed the most yardage in NFL history, can stop teams, too. The Bears managed just two first downs on their five five possessions while not getting beyond their own 35-yard line.
"It was nothing that we haven't seen or practiced against that happened out there today," Cutler said. "There were just some miscommunications out there. Three plays in this game are significant, and it hurts."
Their defense gave the Saints' offense the time and breathing room it needed, and the Saints essentially put the game out of reach by scoring touchdowns on their final two posessions of the first half. Chicago couldn't get within 13 points in the second half until a touchdown with 2:11 remaining in the fourth quarter made the final score look reasonably close.
New Orleans is now 5-0, the only undefeated team in the NFC, a nifty turnaround from last year's 1-4 start. Of course, a lot is different from the Saints of a year ago, changes headlined by Payton's return from a year-long suspension for his role in the New Orleans bounty scandal.
"It's a new year," Brees said. "Last year, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. This year, the ball's bouncing our way. It hasn't been perfect, but we have found different ways to win each week. You see constant improvement, and that's what we're looking for."
With the Saints limiting their long throws to slow the pass rush on Brees, his streak of 300-yard passing games ended at nine although he managed to complete 29 of 35 attempts for 288 yards. Graham tied an NFL record for tight ends with his fourth straight 100-yard receiving catch, catching 10 passes for 135 yards. But it was running back Pierre Thomas who scored both touchdowns, one of them by taking a screen pass and weaving 25 yards through the Chicago defense.
Garrett Hartley produced the rest of the Saints' points with four field goals.
What the Saints said
"The feeling in the locker room is we feel like we could beat anybody right now." - Saints tackle Zach Strief.
What the Bears said
"The way they played offensively and ate up the clock, it's hard to rebound if you miss three or four plays." - Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
What we learned about the Saints
1. This is clearly a new year for their defense. New Orleans got three blindside sacks on Jay Cutler in the first half and even though Cutler eventually was able to complete 24 of 33 passes for 358 yards, his statistics were mostly meaningless. He was frequently under pressure, did a good job often of escaping and getting the ball away, but the Saints' defense never seemed to lose control of the game. A year ago, the Saints gave up the most yardage in NFL history.
2. It would be hard to believe there is a better tight end weapon in the game right now than Jimmy Graham. Brees targeted him 11 times and completed 10 passes. In five games, Graham has caught 37 passes for 593 yards and six touchdowns.
What we learned about the Bears
1. They can't always count on their defense bailing them out with takeways. Even in a game like Sunday, when Chicago outgained New Orleans , 434-347, and had three more first downs, the Bears never really looked like they were going to win at least in part because the lack of turnovers led to a loss on the field position battle.
2. They might consider going back to their roots, in which their defense is paired with a strong running game on offense. Coming into the game, New Orleans ranked 27th in the NFL against the run, allowing 5.5 yards a carry, but Matt Forte carried only four times in the first half and only seven times in the first three quarters. Forte averaged a respectable 4.6 yards a carry but it didn't have much effect because the Bears leaned so much more on their passing game.