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The Saints’ Big Three Can’t Be Stopped

The New Orleans Saints already looked like Super Bowl contenders at various times in the first half of this season. But after their 45-35 victory over the previously undefeated Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, the Saints have landed themselves squarely in the conversation of potential championship favorites. Certainly, no team is hotter as we survey the NFL at midseason: New Orleans has won seven straight, including triumphs over the Vikings, Falcons and Ravens. And for better or for worse, they’re doing it in classic Saints style — piling up a ton of points (and taking the occasional end-zone phone call) while simply hoping for the best on defense. Although this method might not ultimately result in the franchise’s second-ever Super Bowl title, it’s going to be damn entertaining to watch New Orleans try to score its way to the top of the NFL heap once again.

Leading the way in the Saints’ offensive showcase is, of course, quarterback Drew Brees. Much has been said about how well Patriots QB Tom Brady has continued to play into his 40s, but Brees is only 17 months younger than Brady and has been just as good as ol’ Touchdown Tom was at the same age. Brees currently leads the NFL in passer rating and ranks fourth in Yards Above Backup QB (trailing only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the Rams’ Jared Goff and Philip Rivers of the Chargers). All this without the benefit of drinking up to 38 glasses of water a day and sleeping in his own brand of recovery pajamas.

Some of the pinpoint throws Brees made Sunday against L.A. demonstrated once again how little touch he has lost — if any — since ESPN’s “Sport Science” scrutinized the mechanical perfection behind his superhuman passing accuracy nearly 10 years ago.

For Brees’s excellence this season, my ESPN colleague Bill Barnwell made the case that New Orleans’s QB — not Kansas City’sshould be the MVP front-runner at the midpoint of the schedule. But Brees isn’t doing it all alone. In fact, the Saints’ resurgence in recent seasons has been as much about quickly re-assembling elite talent around Brees as it has been about Brees defying Father Time.

New Orleans rolled out one of the league’s all-time great rookie classes last year, headlined by running back Alvin Kamara. Sharing touches with veteran ball carrier Mark Ingram in a historic RB tandem, Kamara was tabbed for the Pro Bowl while racking up 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns. And with Ingram suspended for the Saints’ first four games this season, Kamara has been even better in an expanded role. His touches per game are up 61 percent, and he’s on track to generate more than 1,800 scrimmage yards with 24 total TDs. Not bad for a player in his first real season as an NFL feature back.1

Kamara has provided the kind of monster performance New Orleans needed to build on last season’s explosive offensive output. But Brees also has a mega-productive target at wide receiver who keeps getting better every year: Michael Thomas. Thomas cracked 1,100 yards through the air in each of his first two NFL seasons, scoring 14 total touchdowns — and this year he has reached an entirely new level of statistical achievement. Averaging an astounding 110.0 receiving yards per game, Thomas would rank 15th all-time in the category if he somehow kept it up over the season’s second half.

(We should also mention that Thomas’s outrageous catch rate of 88.6 percent is currently the best ever in a season2 among players with at least 750 receiving yards, more than 11 percentage points higher than the next-best season. It’s a friendly reminder that Thomas is having one of the most impressive WR seasons ever.)

If we crunch the numbers for the Saints’ Big Three in terms of Approximate Value (’s cross-position measure of single-season player value), we find that Brees is on pace for 20 AV, with Thomas also at 20 and Kamara at 18. Together, the harmonic mean3 of those AV numbers — a metric I’ll call the “Triplet Score” — is 19.3, which would rank New Orleans’s group fourth-best among QB/RB/WR trios since 1960:

The Saints’ 2018 trio is on a historic pace

Top QB/RB/WR trios ranked by their “Triplet Score” — the harmonic mean of each player’s Approximate Value (AV) — 1960-2018

Team Leaders and their Approx. value
Year Team Passer Rusher Receiver Triplet Score
1 1994 49ers Young 23 Watters 19 Rice 21 20.9
2 1976 Colts Jones 22 Mitchell 23 Carr 18 20.8
3 1999 Colts Manning 18 James 21 Harrison 20 19.6
4 2018 Saints Brees 20 Kamara 18 Thomas 20 19.3
5 1961 Oilers Blanda 22 Cannon 16 Hennigan 21 19.3
6 2001 Rams Warner 20 Faulk 22 Holt 16 19.0
7 2004 Colts Manning 21 James 21 Wayne 15 18.5
8 2000 Vikings Culpepper 21 Smith 18 Moss 17 18.5
9 1982 Chargers Fouts 22 Muncie 14 Chandler 22 18.5
10 1999 Rams Warner 19 Faulk 25 Bruce 14 18.3
11 1992 Cowboys Aikman 17 Smith 20 Irvin 18 18.3
12 2000 Rams Warner 15 Faulk 22 Holt 19 18.2
13 1964 Browns Ryan 17 Brown 23 Warfield 16 18.2
14 1993 49ers Young 23 Watters 14 Rice 20 18.2
15 2006 Chargers Rivers 18 Tomlinson 26 Gates 14 18.1
16 2014 Packers Rodgers 21 Lacy 16 Nelson 18 18.1
17 2000 Colts Manning 18 James 21 Harrison 16 18.1
18 1992 49ers Young 22 Watters 16 Rice 17 18.0
19 1995 Cowboys Aikman 15 Smith 20 Irvin 19 17.7
20 2000 49ers Garcia 20 Garner 17 Owens 16 17.5

2018 AV is pro-rated to a 16-game schedule.


Led by that star-powered triumvirate, the Saints’ offense currently ranks seventh in the league in yards per game, second in points per game and second in offensive expected points added (EPA) per contest. (And it’s anybody’s guess how much higher it will soar with new WR pickup Dez Bryant on board.) But the Saints’ undoing might be their backslide on defense, where they’ve fallen from a surprising 16th in defensive EPA last season to 29th this year. In that regard, the 2018 Saints are like too many versions that had come before last season — great on offense but prone to making opposing offenses look great, too.

The Saints’ defense is reverting to (poor) form

Yearly record and NFL rank in expected points added (EPA) for the New Orleans Saints since 2013

Saints’ NFL Rank in …
Season Wins Losses Offense Defense special Teams
2013 11 5 3 11 25
2014 7 9 5 32 23
2015 7 9 2 32 23
2016 7 9 5 30 22
2017 11 5 2 16 15
2018 7 1 2 29 3

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Even though New Orleans has that shiny 7-1 record, its defensive deficiency is probably something coordinator Dennis Allen will have to iron out if the Saints are truly going to vie for the Super Bowl. Although several other contenders — most notably Kansas City — are in a similar all-offense/no-defense spot at midseason, it’s rare to see such a poor defensive squad hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Since 2006, only one champion (the 2006 Indianapolis Colts) ranked 29th or worse in defensive EPA per game.4 But with an average of 62.1 total points being scored in their games thus far, the Saints have certainly been involved in their share of popcorn-worthy shootouts.

They’ll take that brand of high-scoring football to Cincinnati on Sunday to face the Bengals. And although the Saints have all but locked up their postseason fortunes, this still counts as one of the best games of the week by our combination of matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and game importance (how likely it is to swing either team’s odds of making the playoffs). That’s mainly because the Bengals, sitting on the precipice of the postseason picture with a 54 percent chance of getting in, have more than a dozen points of probability to lose or gain, depending on the game’s outcome.

The best matchups of Week 10

Week 10 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
PIT 81.2% +/-10.5 CAR 75.2% +/-10.1 20.5 1618
PHI 60.0 13.3 DAL 10.5 9.3 22.6 1548
CHI 54.7 15.4 DET 8.9 7.7 23.1 1507
CIN 54.0 13.0 NO 94.1 4.0 17.0 1583
SEA 33.7 13.4 LAR 98.3 2.2 15.6 1592
TEN 40.5 13.7 NE 97.8 2.0 15.7 1590
WSH 43.0 14.5 TB 5.9 4.1 18.6 1470
MIA 21.2 10.3 GB 12.4 6.1 16.4 1457
JAX 9.1 6.6 IND 10.5 6.2 12.8 1456
KC 99.8 0.2 ARI 0.2 0.1 0.4 1520
ATL 43.7 8.9 CLE 0.1 0.1 9.0 1434
LAC 86.8 6.9 OAK 0.0 0.0 7.0 1454
NYJ 1.0 0.6 BUF 0.2 0.2 0.9 1388
SF 0.2 0.1 NYG 0.1 0.1 0.2 1377

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)


As for the Saints, we’ll keep a close eye on how far their high-octane offensive attack can take them in the season’s second half. Our model gives them a 16 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, which is tied with New England for second-best in the NFL (behind K.C. at 18 percent). And with Brees, Kamara and Thomas lighting up opposing defenses, New Orleans might lead the league in excitement either way, win or lose.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings using our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how often each team should make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. And did you know you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game? Maybe you can also climb up our giant leaderboard (or, if you’re like me, fall down it with each passing week).

Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 9

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 9 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

CHI 54% CHI 69% CHI 41, BUF 9 +9.7
SEA 61 SEA 51 LAC 25, SEA 17 +9.0
DEN 54 HOU 54 HOU 19, DEN 17 +6.0
BAL 54 PIT 52 PIT 23, BAL 16 +4.3
WSH 55 WSH 52 ATL 38, WSH 14 +1.5
DAL 66 DAL 64 TEN 28, DAL 14 +0.7
KC 84 KC 87 KC 37, CLE 21 -0.5
MIN 68 MIN 69 MIN 24, DET 9 -0.9
CAR 76 CAR 73 CAR 42, TB 28 -3.4
MIA 62 MIA 59 MIA 13, NYJ 6 -4.2
SF 62 SF 55 SF 34, OAK 3 -7.3
NE 81 NE 71 NE 31, GB 17 -7.6
NO 59 LAR 52 NO 45, LAR 35 -12.4

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Readers kept it relatively close against Elo this week, losing by an average of just 5.1 points across all of Week 9’s games — their second-best showing of the season, behind Week 7. Of course, that tells you what kind of year it’s been picking against the algorithm: Elo has beaten the average reader in eight of nine weeks in 2018 so far. This time around, the readers’ bet against Nathan Peterman paid off (big surprise…) and they also picked up points with the Chargers’ victory at Elo’s longtime team-crush, the Seattle Seahawks. But the Saints’ win over the Rams hurt readers’ average score — perhaps they didn’t read that L.A. is good but not necessarily historically great.

Anyway, congrats to the mysteriously named _ACN_, who led identified users in Week 9 with 204.0 points, and to Brian Hake, who pulled into the No. 1 slot for the entire season with 764.5 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.


  1. Upon returning, Ingram initially ate a bit into Kamara’s workload, but over the past three weeks, Kamara is averaging 20.7 touches per game. That’s actually higher than his seasonlong average (which includes a 31-touch outing against the Falcons in Week 3).

  2. Since 1992, the first year for the statistic in’s data.

  3. A special kind of average designed to amplify combinations in which all individual values are high — and penalize ones in which they aren’t.

  4. The 2011 New York Giants were close: They ranked 24th in defensive EPA. Aside from those two, no other champ since 2006 ranked worse than 13th on defense.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.