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NFL Winners and Losers: Saints riding one of the best RB tandems in many, many years

Most teams would kill to have a first-ballot Hall of Fame, all-time great quarterback. The New Orleans Saints have one in Drew Brees, and they’ve made him a secondary part of the offense.

That’s not a bad thing, and it’s surely not a statement on what Brees still has left. The Saints are just going to ride their fantastic running back duo as long as they can. And they know that when they need Brees, he can still be great for them.

The Saints didn’t need Brees to do it all on Sunday. Alvin Kamara had 146 total yards and two touchdowns. Mark Ingram had 122 total yards and a touchdown. The Saints were never in danger in a 31-21 win over the Carolina Panthers, and are now in control of the NFC South. They lead the Panthers by a game in the standings and have clinched the tiebreaker. And the co-MVPs of the team might be the best running back duo we’ve seen in many years, and arguably for a few decades.

The Saints changed their identity overnight, and it couldn’t be going much better. Kamara and Ingram have combined for more than 200 yards from scrimmage in five straight games, according to NFL Research. Now we all know why Adrian Peterson had no role on this team and had to be traded to Arizona. Having a pair of running backs who are so devastating not just running the ball but also in the passing game has taken pressure off Brees. It also takes pressure off a defense that has improved remarkably (and played well without top cornerback Marshon Lattimore on Sunday).

One play Sunday from each back showed their value to this Saints team. Ingram had a 72-yard run, but a 7-yard gain might have been the more impressive play. Early in the third quarter, on a third-and-7, Ingram caught a 2-yard pass with two defenders right in front of him. To get the last five yards he made one defender miss, then powered his way to the last couple yards and the first down. It was an impressive display of desire to keep the drive going. Later that drive, Kamara scored a 20-yard touchdown.

Both of Kamara’s touchdowns were impressive, as he displayed balance and power on both to run through defenders on his way to the end zone. But late in the game he closed out the win on a fantastic run after catch. The Panthers were barely alive when the Saints had a third-and-10 with 2:31 left. Kamara split wide right, caught a receiver screen behind the line of scrimmage and then weaved his way through the defense for a 22-yard gain. The Saints kneeled on the ball three times after that and the game was over. It would have seemed like a conservative give-up play for most teams, but Kamara’s elusiveness made it a good bet for the Saints. The Panthers simply couldn’t tackle Kamara on the play, which has been a theme for weeks with him.

Kamara is the clear front-runner for NFL offensive rookie of the year. He is the third rookie in NFL history with 100 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in five straight games, joining Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Eric Dickerson (h/t to Paul Hembekides‏ of ESPN Stats and Info). Ingram is having a fine year too, and the Saints have made sure to split snaps roughly equally between the two. They’re using them both on the field at the same time on occasion as well. Sean Payton knows what he has with the duo and is using them to the fullest.

This is probably the best running back duo of this decade, at least. The two have combined for 2,417 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns, with four games to go. The 2009 Panthers had a productive duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, but they had 2,641 yards and 18 touchdowns over a full season. Kamara and Ingram will blow by that yardage and they already have more touchdowns. In 2008, Giants backs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward each rushed for 1,000 yards, but they weren’t in the Saints duo’s class. You might have to go back to the 1985 Browns for the last time the NFL saw a running back duo like this one. That’s when Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack each rushed for 1,000 yards and combined for 2,863 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. There are reasonable arguments to make for other more recent duos being more talented (Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson, Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes to name a few), but the combined production of Kamara and Ingram is staggering. According to Michael Salfino of FiveThirtyEight the only team in a 16-game season (which began in 1978) to have two backs go over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and combine for 3,000 yards was the 1978 Bears. That year Walter Payton and Roland Harper had 3,207 yards. The Saints duo has a shot at passing that.

And just think, the offense also has one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. Brees isn’t just a handoff machine this season. He has 3,298 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions, and his efficiency is still off the charts. The difference is he can have quiet games and the Saints have a chance to win. Too many times in recent seasons, the Saints had no chance if Brees didn’t have a big game and they had only a decent chance to win if Brees was great. That switch really flipped in Week 10, when the Saints beat the Bills 47-10 and ran the ball 24 times in a row at one point. Brees had just 184 yards and didn’t throw a touchdown in that game, but the Saints won easily. It sent a message that this season’s Saints were far more than just Brees throwing every down because they had no other path to win. Payton might as well keep rolling with it.

That’s what makes the Saints so intriguing in the NFC playoff picture. Payton is a tremendous coach. The defense isn’t dominant but it’s clearly good enough. Brees is as capable as ever. And now the Saints have two running backs (and, it needs to be pointed out, an offensive line that is playing very well) that opposing defenses haven’t been able to contend with.

The NFL in 2017 is a passing league, and the Saints have one of the best passers ever. But they’ve found a different path to success. It’s hard to argue with the results.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) breaks loose from Carolina Panthers free safety Kurt Coleman (20) on a touchdown. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 13 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Minnesota Vikings defense: Because the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense is having such a dominant season, the Vikings’ defense probably hasn’t gotten quite enough attention. That’s fine, because the Vikings will be hard to ignore in January.

The Vikings’ hope of becoming the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium took a nice step forward on Sunday. Against an Atlanta Falcons team that was riding a three-game winning streak and looked like it was finding its stride, the Vikings totally shut them down in a 14-9 win. Minnesota is now 10-2. The Falcons had 15 first downs, 275 yards and didn’t score a touchdown. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was largely responsible for limiting Falcons receiver Julio Jones to 24 yards on two catches. It was an impressive performance.

The Vikings are still a game ahead of the Saints and Los Angeles Rams for a bye in the NFC, and Minnesota is still alive to steal the No. 1 seed from the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Vikings can win at Carolina next week, they finish with a home game against the Bengals, play at the Packers and come back home against the Bears in Week 17. A 14-2 season isn’t out of the question. With the defense playing this well, winning a few games in the playoffs could happen too.

Los Angeles Rams: The last time the Rams had a winning season was 2003. Marc Bulger filled in well for an injured Kurt Warner, throwing to Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce while handing off to Marshall Faulk. The 13-year drought without a winning season was the longest in the NFL.

That streak is over. The Rams had a nice win in a tricky spot at the Arizona Cardinals, pounding Arizona 32-16. Aaron Donald had a pair of sacks, the defense grabbed two interceptions, including a pick-six for Alec Ogletree and the offense was paced by Todd Gurley’s 158 yards. The Rams have been such a machine this season, their wins seem routine by now.

Los Angeles is 9-3 and has a huge home game against the Philadelphia Eagles next week. It has been a long time since the Rams were in a position like this.

New York Giants: Sure, the Giants lost to the Oakland Raiders 24-17, but isn’t that what they wanted? The Eli Manning benching was so strange, it’s fair to wonder if the Giants want to lose out.

It’s for the best. They’re already eliminated from playoff contention. The Giants’ biggest priority now is to get the highest draft pick possible. In that quest, Sunday was a good day. The Giants lost and the San Francisco 49ers won, bringing the Giants and 49ers into a tie for the second-worst record in the NFL (strength of schedule is the tiebreaker and it’s still close between those two teams).

The Giants need a new quarterback to build around, and getting a top-three pick would help them accomplish that. The Raiders were underwhelming on Sunday, and perhaps Manning would have led a win. But if we’re being honest, that would be the worst thing for the Giants the rest of this season.

Jimmy Garoppolo: Garoppolo didn’t step into the starting lineup and blow everyone away in his first San Francisco 49ers start. But he was a part of a win, something the 49ers had experienced only twice in their previous 26 games.

Garoppolo played pretty well. He completed 26 of 37 passes for 293 yards. That won’t put him alongside Montana and Young yet, but it was a good beginning. And Garoppolo made one huge play. Just before the two-minute warning, on third-and-9, Garoppolo’s 33-yard pass to Trent Taylor was the play of the game. The calm, accurate strike over the middle set up the game-winning field goal.

The 49ers’ peculiar reluctance to start Garoppolo led to speculation if the 49ers had other plans for him. Let’s assume that the 49ers sent a second-round pick to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo and will lock him up to a long-term deal. On Sunday, you could see why that might be a very wise investment.

LOSERS

Blake Bortles haters: When the Jacksonville Jaguars lose, Bortles gets blamed. When they win and Bortles plays well, you rarely hear about it.

Bortles did play very well on Sunday and it allowed the Jaguars to cruise to an easy 30-10 win. Bortles was 26 of 35 for 309 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Bortles has two 300-yard games this season, and both came against the Indianapolis Colts. The Jaguars won’t see the terrible Colts in the playoffs, but his play Sunday should give them a glimmer of hope that he can help them in a big game. Bortles was mostly under control, spread the ball around to seven different receivers and hit a few big plays.

If Bortles can get hot (the Jaguars would probably take him getting warm), it would be a huge boost to Jacksonville’s chances of not just making the playoffs but maybe winning a game or two there. It might also affect the Jaguars’ upcoming decision this offseason to stick with Bortles or move in a different direction. On Sunday at least, there was some reason for optimism.

DeShone Kizer: With a couple more turnovers on Sunday, Kizer brought the Browns a step closer to 0-16 and also probably ensured the team will draft his replacement first overall.

Cleveland fell to 0-12, but it was competitive at the Los Angeles Chargers. Trailing 19-10 with a little less than five minutes remaining, Kizer held the ball too long looking downfield, was hit from behind by Joey Bosa and lost a fumble. Then with the Browns at the Chargers’ 31 with less than two minutes remaining, Kizer threw an interception right to Chargers safety Adrian Phillips. Without those two turnovers, maybe it’s a different result.

With the loss and the 49ers’ win on Sunday, the Browns are now the worst team in the NFL by two games. Let’s assume the Browns, who are 1-27 under Hue Jackson, aren’t going to win two of their next four. That means they’ll get the No. 1 pick in a draft with a few good quarterback prospects. If they pass on a quarterback yet again, Browns fans might revolt.

Kizer has skills and did good things in the preseason. But there’s no reason for the Browns to pass on a quarterback next spring. Kizer helped practically lock up the first pick on Sunday, a pick that will probably send him to the bench next year.

Detroit Lions: When the Lions went into their Thanksgiving game, they still had hopes of winning the NFC North. Two losses later, their chances of grabbing a playoff spot don’t look very good.

Detroit followed a loss to the Vikings on Thanksgiving with a bad loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. The Lions fell behind 20-0, and after rallying a bit the floodgates opened and the offensively challenged Ravens put up 44 points in a 44-20 win.

Even worse, Stafford left with a right hand injury. Caldwell said the hand was just badly bruised and there were no broken bones, and the Lions will have to hope Stafford heals quickly. They have no chance without Stafford.

Even if Stafford is 100 percent by next week, the Lions are in a tough spot in the playoff race. The Cowboys won this week, as did the Packers. That makes three 6-6 teams chasing the 8-4 Seahawks, 8-4 Panthers and 7-5 Falcons in the wild-card race. A no-show in Baltimore could end up being a bad turning point.

Vance Joseph and the Denver Broncos: On Sunday, the Broncos looked like a team that is not going to win another game this season. That’s not good for Joseph.

The Broncos coach will have some nervous moments if he finishes his first season 3-13, and it seems like that’s the most likely outcome for this lost Broncos season. The Broncos showed very little fight on Sunday in a 35-9 loss to a terrible Miami Dolphins team. If you lose by 26 to the Dolphins, you’re not beating anyone else in the NFL. Denver’s offense was absolutely dreadful, this time with Trevor Siemian back as starter. Denver’s only touchdown was from the defense. The offense gained just 14 first downs.

This isn’t all Joseph’s fault. The Broncos have three quarterbacks and they’ve all been terrible. However, Denver had practically the same quarterbacks last season and a different coaching staff went 9-7. A 3-13 mark will be tough to take. The Broncos have never lost 13 games in a season. They’ve lost 12 only once, in 2010, and Josh McDaniels was fired during that season. The last four weeks might be important for Joseph. It seems hard to believe Denver would fire him after one season, but the Broncos also aren’t used to seasons this bad.

Kansas City Chiefs: On a third-and-1 late in the third quarter, with tight end Travis Kelce on the bench, the Chiefs threw downfield to backup offensive lineman Cam Erving. It was incomplete off his hands, and as ugly as you can imagine.

That mind-numbing play call was just one of many baffling moments in a crushing 38-31 loss to the Jets. The Chiefs had a 14-0 lead a few minutes into the game, and couldn’t even get out of the first quarter with a lead. The offense finally showed up, and the defense fell apart. Then came the ridiculous spectacle of cornerback Marcus Peters throwing the official’s flag in the stands when he was upset over a penalty, thinking he was ejected and walking back to the locker room, then having to come back without socks when he realized he wasn’t ejected.

Andy Reid is a good coach with a long track record, but this season has slipped away from him and his team. It’s unthinkable but a Chiefs team that was 5-0 is now tied for first place with a Los Angeles Chargers team that was once 0-4. The Chiefs still get the Chargers at home, but they haven’t played well enough lately to beat anyone. It has been an amazing collapse.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!