METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees dismissed the Saints’ offensive slump during the past few games as an aberration.
The past four years back him up.
“I know what we’re capable of and I know that if you just look at our track record, the last three out of four years we’ve had the No. 1 offense in the league,” Brees said. “That’s a body of work. That’s not just a stretch of games here and a stretch of games there.”
Coming into their playoff opener at home this Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals, the Saints are coming off what would be a lousy stretch of games by the standards of their offense. In their last three regular season games — also their only three losses of the season — the Saints averaged 307.3 yards and 14.6 points.
Those numbers could have been skewed downward because Saints coach Sean Payton rested numerous regulars, including Brees, in their 23-10 loss at Carolina in Week 17. Still, New Orleans was unable to score more than 17 points in either of its first two losses to Dallas and Tampa Bay.
Offensive guard Carl Nicks said it was pretty obvious to him that New Orleans’ league-leading offense did not perform nearly as well during the last month of the season as it did through the first three.
“Stevie Wonder could see that,” Nicks said. “I mean, what we were doing these first … eight weeks was special, man. What we did (recently) is not up to our standard at all.”
Nicks became a starter as a rookie last season, when the Saints averaged a league-leading 410.7 yards and 28.9 points per game. The Saints also led the NFL in total yards in 2006 (391.5), the first year they had Brees and Payton.
This season the Saints averaged a league-leading 403.8 yards per game and NFL-best 31.9 points per game. In 2007, the one season in the Payton-Brees era in which the Saints did not lead the NFL in offense, they were fourth.
That kind of track record says more about Payton’s ability to design and call offensive plays than any three-game slump, Brees said.
“We know how to play at a high level offensively,” Brees said, adding that he expects the Saints to be better off for having a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed. “The opportunity to get guys healthy — that was huge. We’ve been banged up at times throughout the season.”
The Saints played their last three games without tight end Jeremy Shockey (toe) and played two of those games without receiver Lance Moore, who has missed eight of the Saints’ last nine games with injuries to each ankle at different times. The Saints did not have an official injury report on Tuesday, but both dressed for practice and sounded optimistic about their chances of returning.
“I feel all right,” Shockey said. “I know we’re practicing hard to reach our full potential. I think everyone is confident on both sides of the ball in the locker room.”
Shockey was close to playing late in the regular season but was rested out of caution, said Payton, who added that getting the star tight end back could be a big boost.
“He’s a presence inside, not only in the passing game,” Payton said. “He helps us in the running game and gives us flexibility with our personnel groupings, so he’s certainly one of the guys we look at as a key starter. There are a number of things that he allows you to do when he’s playing rather than when he’s not.”
The Saints also hoped leading rusher Pierre Thomas, who cracked three ribs in the first half of the Saints’ loss to the Buccaneers on Dec. 27, would be back as well.
If they are all healthy, Brees will have numerous proven receivers — including Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem — at his disposal. Running back Reggie Bush also routinely runs pass routes from the backfield, the slot or out wide. Thomas has been one of the Saints’ most effective targets on screen passes. Running back Mike Bell will add more power to the running game, which will help if the Saints are trying to protect a lead in the fourth quarter.
This season, the Saints ranked fourth in yards passing per game (272.2) and sixth in yards rushing (131.6).
Payton said he trusts his players to be at their best now and is not concerned New Orleans’ lag in offense during the past month will drag on into the playoffs.
“What’s most important is this next coming month,” Payton said. “I’m pretty confident. I think our players will be ready. … Really, everyone starts off 0-0 right here.”
Brett Martel/The Associated Press