METAIRIE - One of the residual effects from this storybook season is the coming of age of third-year wide receiver Robert Meachem, whoâ€™s suddenly fulfilling the lofty expectations of a No. 1 draft pick for the unbeaten and playoff-bound New Orleans Saints.
Meachem, the 27th overall pick in 2007, has turned into a big-play machine the past six games, catching 23 passes for 393 yards and six touchdowns, including a career-best performance (8-142-1) in Sundayâ€™s improbable 33-30 win in overtime against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Throw in his body of work from the first six games and it adds up to 29 catches (38 targeted passes, a 76.3 success rate) for 544 yards and eight scores.
That breaks down to a team and NFL-high average of 18.8 yards per catch with no drops going into Sundayâ€™s game against the Atlanta Falcons (6-6) at the Georgia Dome. A win ensures the NFC South-champion Saints (12-0) of a first-round bye in the playoffs.
â€œAnd the scary thing is Robert isnâ€™t anywhere close to peaking,â€™â€™ Saints wide receiver Marques Colston said. â€œThe sky is the limit for that guy. His potential is so exciting and just to see it develop, Iâ€™m happy for him and proud of him at the same time.â€™â€™
The one play by Meachem that stands out above all the rest this season had nothing to do with him catching a ball. It came against Washington when he turned a Redskinsâ€™ interception into a 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown to knot the game at 17 with 22 seconds remaining in the first half.
That â€œgrand theftâ€™â€™ in the shadows of the nationâ€™s capitol headlined ESPNâ€™s Top 10 plays in Week 13.
â€œThat play was significant,â€™â€™ Saints Coach Sean Payton said. â€œItâ€™s a hustle play. Itâ€™s an effort play. You might do that 75 times and you may pull the ball out a handful of times. But the way he stayed after it and stripped the safety (Kareem Moore) and scored, that was significant.â€™â€™
Just as Meachem didnâ€™t quit on that play, he has never quit on himself, though the opportunity presented itself when a knee injury kept him inactive for all 16 games of his rookie season. Last season, he provided a glimpse of things to come, catching 12 passes for 289 yards and scoring four touchdowns in 14 games. Now this season, everyone connected with Who Dat Nation is enjoying the fruits of his labor.
Through it all, the good, bad and ugly, Meachem has stayed true to himself, remaining humble and giving praise to God, family, friends, teammates and a front office that never stopped believing in him.
â€œCoach Payton and Mr. (Saints GM Mickey) Loomis just kept telling me to â€˜be ready, be ready,â€™ â€˜â€™ Meachem said. â€œJust for them to say that. They didnâ€™t have to say nothing. They could have kept walking by me every day. But they kept telling me to â€˜be ready, be ready.â€™ â€™â€™
Though some fair-weather fans might have lost faith in Meachem, he never did.
â€œOh yeah, you hear it, just walking down the street,â€™â€™ he said. â€œThere was a lot of that stuff. But itâ€™s all how you take it. If you take it the wrong way and you make it a negative, then itâ€™ll be a negative. If you make it a positive, itâ€™ll be a positive.
â€œI really didnâ€™t have to show nobody. It was all about me. I had to put it in my heart that I could do all these things. What everybody else said, that was just motivation. I just used that as motivation. I ainâ€™t one to say â€˜I told you so,â€™ or nothing like that. I just wanted to go out there and work hard and do everything I can to get better.â€™â€™
Getting better has always been the bottom line for Meachem, according to Colston, a seventh-round draft pick in 2006 from Hofstra University and the unofficial president of Meachemâ€™s burgeoning fan club.
â€œHeâ€™s a good person before anything else,â€™â€™ Meachem said. â€œHe works extremely hard. Any time you see those two qualities, you want to pull for somebody and help them out in any way you can. Thatâ€™s definitely what I saw in him.â€™â€™
This season, Saints fans apparently are seeing the same thing.
â€œNow I hear, â€˜You are the miracle that was waiting to happen. This is your year,â€™ all kind of positive things now,â€™â€™ Meachem said. â€œThis is life. Everybody is human. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody has their own opinion. So when they say good things, Iâ€™m happy. When they say bad things, Iâ€™m still happy because I try to make that bad thing into a positive.
â€œThereâ€™s still more to come. Every week Iâ€™m trying to get better and better. Thereâ€™s still more to come.â€™â€™
As expected, two players who have undergone recent surgery will miss Sundayâ€™s game against Atlanta - CB Jabari Greer (sports hernia) and LB Scott Fujita (staph infection, knee). Both are out indefinitely.
CB Tracy Porter (knee) and LB Marvin Mitchell (hamstring) are doubtful. RB Mike Bell (knee) and WR Lance Moore (high ankle sprain/hamstring) are questionable. All other injured players are probable, according to the teamâ€™s official injury report filed with the league office.
Porter, who has missed the past three games with a sprained MCL in his left knee, practiced on a limited basis Friday. He is hopeful to get back on the field before the end of the regular season.
â€œI want to get out there and shake off the rust before the playoffs,â€™â€™ Porter said.
WORST TO FIRST
An amazing trend in the NFC South continued again this season.
The Saints have gone from worst to first, the sixth time since the formation of the NFC South in 2002 that the last-place team from one year has captured the division the next year.
It gets crazier. No NFC South team has ever defended its title, and each year the last place team from the previous season has come back to make the playoffs the next season.
BY THE NUMBERS
120 - Touchdown passes thrown by Saints franchise leader Aaron Brooks.
117 - Touchdown passes thrown as a Saint by quarterback Drew Brees, including an NFL best 29 this season.
â€œIt looked like a M*A*S*H unit over there on the sidelines.â€™â€™ - Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on the number of injured players on defense who were held out of the Redskins game.
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