In the absence of coach Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints were stumbling down the stairs in the dark, with last season turning into a lost cause before it even got started.
Payton, suspended a year by the NFL for the Saints’ bounty program, is among the league’s sharpest play-callers, and quarterback Drew Brees lost his edge without the architect of the offense on the sidelines.
A Super Bowl-winning team in 2009, the Saints won 13 games in 2011 and slipped to 7-9 while Payton served his punishment. Brees posted typical big numbers, passing for 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns, but his back was against the wall while trying to compensate for a defense that ranked last in the league.
Payton has returned, his black eye healed, and New Orleans is looking like a title contender again. The nation is well aware of the Saints’ resurgence after watching them whip the Miami Dolphins in the Monday night spotlight.
Of the five teams at 4-0, Denver and Seattle are the favorites with the betting public, and most of us are warming up to Kansas City and New England. New Orleans is attracting plenty of attention, too, and maybe a little too much.
Mostly due to the Monday massacre, public money is on the Saints as 1-point favorites at Chicago on Sunday. The Bears are off a loss in which they looked really bad, especially quarterback Jay Cutler. So this is a matchup of teams with different public perceptions.
Football teams are similar to stocks. Buy low, sell high. I’m not selling the Saints as contenders in the NFC, because in August I did recommend betting over their regular-season win total of 9½.
But this is a better spot for the Bears, who were being hyped a week ago after rolling into Pittsburgh and roughing up Ben Roethlisberger. The wheels fell off in a loss at Detroit, and now Cutler is a bum and a home ’dog.
This is not the Superdome, where Brees is basically unbeatable. This is Soldier Field, where he’s winless. Brees is 0-4 with a 71.3 passer rating in four games at Chicago, and the ball-hawking defense he will see this week resembles the ones he struggled against in the past.
The New Orleans defense is vastly improved, thanks mostly to new coordinator Rob Ryan’s more aggressive schemes, but shut-down victories over Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Miami don’t prove enough.
In the Saints’ first true test on the road, where they are 11-15 ATS since 2010, I’ll side with Cutler and the Bears to bounce back.
Baltimore, a 3-point underdog at Miami, and the hapless New York Giants, 1½-point home favorites over Philadelphia, just missed making my cut.
Four more plays for Week 5 (home team in CAPS):
■ COLTS (+3) over Seahawks: Andrew Luck is legit, and so is Indianapolis. The Colts’ playoff run last season was viewed as a fluke, but in the past two weeks, they hammered San Francisco and Jacksonville on the road by a combined score of 64-10. Seattle has covered 11 of its past 12 games. So, while this is not best-bet material, it is a bad spot for the Seahawks, who stole a win at Houston and should be 0-2 on the road.
■ PACKERS (-7) over Lions: The bye week arrived early for Green Bay, and it came after a stunning loss at Cincinnati. The spot is much better for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers will light up the Lions, who have not won at Green Bay since 1991 and covered only four games during that losing streak.
■ COWBOYS (+7½) over Broncos: Only a small collection of outcasts will be holding tickets on Dallas. Even the contrarians and pros are reluctant to bet against Denver. The wagering on this game is incredibly lopsided, and thus the line appears too high. If the Cowboys can move the sticks and work the clock with running back DeMarco Murray, they have a shot by keeping Peyton Manning and his offense out of a rhythm.
■ RAIDERS (+5) over Chargers: We can spin trends several ways. The road team has covered the past seven in this AFC West series, but the underdog has covered eight in a row. In this situation, with the return of dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Oakland is a live ’dog playing in front of a rowdy Sunday night crowd. San Diego, off a comeback victory over Dallas, could get ambushed in the “Black Hole.”
Last week: 3-2 against the spread
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.