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.
Those "things" apparently included frequent use of extra blockers to prevent pressure on Brees and a limit on risky play calls to reduce the Bears' chances of forcing turnovers.
"We heard it a lot, that we hadn't won up here," said tackle Zach Strief. "If there's a stone going into a game, Sean will overturn it. Anything he can use to motivate us, he will."
The Saints started slowly, settling for field goals after a couple of early drives stalled including one that began at the Chicago 6-yard line after a sack by Malcolm Jenkins on a safely blitz forced a fumble by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler - one of three blindside sacks in the first half.
Clearly, New Orleans, which last year allowed the most yardage in NFL history, now has a solid defense, and 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.
Defensively, meanwhile, the Saints blanketed Brandon Marshall, Cutler's favorite target, and forced him to go to alternate receivers. Marshall caught just 4 passes for 30 yards and clearly was miffed about it, even though Alshon Jeffrey picked up the slack with 10 catches for 218 yards.
"They weren't going to let (Marshall) have a good day," Cutler said. "They were doubling him in the slot. In the red zone, they were doubling him over the top. They decided, 'Hey, it's not going to happen.' They were going to take him out of the ballgame. ... He might be frustrated, but we just have to keep getting better and better, and he understands that."
For the Saints, Brees' average of less than 10 yards per completion was well short of his average of 12.9 in the season's first four games, but he was only sacked twice for seven yards (vs. 12 sacks for 81 yards in the previous games) and did not throw an interception, or anything close to an interception.
"We know what their formula is," Brees said, a reference to the Bears' defensive ballhawking ability. "We knew we had to be very patient and take care of the football."
Notes: With defensive tackle Henry Melton out for the season due to a torn ACL, the Bears moved backup end Shea McClellin into his spot. Stephen Paea was inactive. ... Chicago's defense was further depleted in the third quarter when Nate Collins, the other starting defensive tackle, went out with a knee injury, leaving the Bears with McClellin and Landon Cohen, signed just a week and a half ago, as their defensive tackles . ... The Bears, with two rookies on the right side of their offensive line, frequently used Eben Britton, a backup lineman, as an extra blocker on first down on that side but the pressure on Cutler more often came from the other side. ... The Saints are off to their best start since 2009, when they won their first 13 games en route to their only Super Bowl title. ... Brees' streak of nine consecutive 300-yard passing games ended as he completed 29 of 35 attempts for 288 yards. Cutler completed 23 of 32 passes for 356 yards.