|National Football League|
Saints crediting rookies Lattimore, Kamara for resurgence
By BRETT MARTEL
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara have one game left to improve New Orleans' chances of matching a feat accomplished once in NFL history - a half-century ago.
The teammates have made a case for offensive and defensive rookies of the year in the same season.
"Both of those guys deserve it," Saints running back Mark Ingram said, stressing that Kamara and Lattimore have helped return the Saints to the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season by playing well "week in and week out."
The only time one team boasted both rookies of the year in the same season was when the awards were first given in 1967 - coincidentally - to players at the same two positions: Detroit defensive back Lem Barney and Lions running back Mel Farr.
The Saints were unable to break the seven-victory plateau in each of the previous three seasons, missing the playoffs each time. But on Sunday at Tampa Bay, New Orleans can wrap up its first NFC South title since 2011 with what would be its 12th victory this season.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter sees a connection between the Saints' influx of rookie talent - which also includes right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and safety Marcus Williams - and New Orleans' return to NFL prominence.
"Any time you can have a draft class that has two rookie Pro Bowlers on there, I would say that's pretty impressive," Koetter said.
Asked how much the additions of Lattimore and Kamara have changed the fortunes of the Saints, Koetter said, "Just look at their record. They've proven it."
The Saints expressed surprise that Lattimore was available when they selected him 11th overall out of Ohio State in last spring's draft. New Orleans also seized a chance to trade up to snag Kamara when he was still available in the third round. Those moves now appear to have been prescient ones by a Saints scouting department led by former Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland.
Lattimore has played in 12 games and has five interceptions - one of which he returned for a touchdown - among 17 passes defended. He has made or assisted on 49 tackles, with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. He has done so in a division whose top receivers include Atlanta's Julio Jones and Tampa Bay's Mike Evans.
"That's what they drafted me for," said Lattimore, who plans to have display cases made for every ball he intercepts. "They needed a corner to come in here and make plays and be that shutdown corner."
After ranking last against the pass last season, the Saints are 11th this season.
"He's having a heck of a year. I don't think anybody expected it to be this good," Saints veteran safety Rafael Bush said of Lattimore. "It changes the dynamic of the defense. We don't have to roll the coverages toward him and give him help."
While Lattimore appeared fortunate on his latest interception, when a deflected pass came to rest on the back of his legs as he landed face down from an attempted diving breakup, Bush said Lattimore probably deserved it.
"If you're doing the right things, it'll show up on the field. You get those kind of plays," Bush said. "You get that good karma."
In Kamara, the Saints see a player who is versatile, learns quickly and never gets rattled.
"He has a strong makeup," Payton said. "He's someone that's driven and he's also resilient."
He also is evidently enjoying the ride, given how he climbs all the way into the Superdome stands and dances with fans after touchdowns.
"Everybody's talking to me like, `You know how big this is?' And I'm like, `I guess,'" a grinning Kamara said when asked if he's grasped his newfound stardom in New Orleans. "I'm just like, `All right, what's next?"
When asked if he's "surprised" by his success, Kamara laughs and says that he doesn't use that word.
Kamara has bolstered New Orleans' second-ranked offense by contributing as a runner and receiver. He's had spectacular highlights, from his 74-yard scoring run in Los Angeles to his game-tying touchdown reception on a bobbled pass between several defenders during an unlikely comeback against Washington.
He has 684 yards rushing - an average of 6.2 yards per carry - and seven TDs on the ground. He has caught 75 passes for 742 yards and five touchdowns.
He might need another head-turning performance to win offensive rookie of the year over candidates including Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt, whose 1,292 yards rushing puts him in range of the league lead, and who has 455 yards receiving.
"I don't really look at that. I just play," Kamara said. "I'm just trying to focus on what we've got to do to win."
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Updated December 28, 2017