The Road Ahead For The New Orleans Saints

The Thursday Night Football matchup for NFL Week 12 looked enticing when the season started, with the New Orleans Saints traveling to Atlanta to meet the Falcons (8:25 PM ET, NFL). It had all the trappings of a big NFC South battle. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

Atlanta’s collapse has made New Orleans a (-410) favorite on the moneyline, on the road, on a short week. If you still want to believe in the Falcons–and after my attempt to do so last week against Tampa Bay, I’m done with that–you can bet last season’s division winner and #1 NFC seed at (+330) to win outright. I’m still picking the Saints.

What I want to do in this space is take a big-picture look at New Orleans. With six games to play, they’re in two races of big significance. Carolina’s controversial win over New England on Monday means the Panthers are just a game back in the NFC South and there’s two New Orleans-Carolina matchups ahead. Whomever wins that fight is going to likely battle Seattle for the #1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs.

Given the strength of homefield advantage for both New Orleans and Seattle, the race for the #1 seed might well be the race for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Carolina doesn’t have the same kind of edge, but at the very least ,they need to deny it to their rivals. Here’s a brief comparison of the three teams, with an emphasis on the Saints perspective.

*It starts with defense, and that includes in New Orleans where the tremendous job done by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has turned this into the best unit Saints fans have seen since 2009. That was a year, you’ll recall, that New Orleans ended by hoisting a championship trophy. The Saints, Panthers and Seahawks are all in the top five of the NFL in points allowed.

*Unsurprisingly, the Drew Brees-led offense is the best of the group–in fact, better than all but Denver. We should note, however that Seattle being #4, and playing in less ideal conditions is something that should concern the Saints. Carolina is middle of the pack.

*All three contenders are in the league’s upper third in both completion percentage and yards-per-completion. The Saints shift a little more to efficiency and short passes, while the Seahawks excel a little more down the field, but the differences are not dramatic. The Panthers trail a bit in both categories.

*New Orleans, Seattle and Carolina all do a good job at limiting the yards-per-pass of their opponent. The Seahawks are the best of the group, but this stat is the flip side of offense. The Saints’ defense has to do its work in climate-controlled conditions ideal for throwing the football and they still aren’t that far behind the Seahawks. If these teams played the same competition in the same venue for six straight weeks, my guess is that the New Orleans defense ends up looking the best.

*Pressure on the quarterback is an area that New Orleans separates itself, both good and bad. They’re distinctly better than both Seattle and Carolina at keeping Brees clean in the pocket. They are significantly worse at generating real pressure themselves.

*By far the biggest concern though, comes in the running game and turnovers. New Orleans is the worst of the three teams in rush yards-per-attempt, while Seattle unsurprisingly enjoys a big advantage with Marshawn Lynch. The Saints are also doing a poor job at stopping the run–the worst in the league in fact, while Carolina excels in this area.

Turnovers often decide big NFL games, and while the Saints are (+3), that’s well behind Carolina (+10) and Seattle (+11).

There are big games ahead on both fronts for the Saints. After Thursday’s trip to Atlanta, they get set for a Monday Night game in Seattle on December 2, and that’s followed by two games in three weeks against Carolina.

By comparison, the Panthers have an easier schedule, with a home date against the Jets being the toughest matchup outside the two with New Orleans. Seattle still has a trip to San Francisco and another to face the New York Giants, who have at least started to string together some ugly-looking wins.

The smart money in Las Vegas has New Orleans in the middle in these two races. They’re still seen as the favorites in the NFC South (7-1 odds to win the Super Bowl compared to Carolina’s 15-1), with Seattle still the odds-on favorite in the NFC, at a 7-2 price tag. Denver ,at 13-5, remains the favorite to win it all.

I’ve been on the New Orleans bandwagon since very early in the year, and as of this writing, they’re my Super Bowl pick. What I do want to see is an increased ability to force turnovers. Thursday’s game against the now-bumbling Falcons and struggling Matt Ryan provide a great opportunity to get that going. And then New Orleans need to force Cam Newton into some mistakes in the big games ahead.

If the Saints can do that, they can survive a trip to Seattle–either the one on December 2 or a potential rematch in the NFC Championship Game.