The Drew Brees/Sean Payton ticket starts its 13th year in the Bayou this Sunday when the New Orleans Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Brees-Payton run has been, by far, the greatest in the mostly troubled history of the franchise. With the quarterback 39-years-old, we’ve reached the point of never knowing when the end of the road will appear. The team itself is coming off a crushing playoff loss in Minnesota last year. All of that leads to the simple question—is this Saints team good enough to give Brees a legit shot at his second Super Bowl ring?
New Orleans will face some adversity right out of the chute, with leading running back Mark Ingram suspended the first four games for PED use. The Saints should still be able to win games against the Buccaneers (who are without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston) and the Browns (who are still the Browns), although winning road games at the Giants and Falcons will be considerably more difficult. But if New Orleans gets to 2-2 when Ingram comes back, they’ll be in good enough position.
Brees doesn’t lack for weapons. Alvin Kamara was the league’s breakout star last year, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. His shiftiness provided a change of pace from the powerful Ingram in the backfield, and Kamara was even better catching passes.
When you get a combination of Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas stretching the field, Kamara working underneath and Ingram simply powering through the middle, that’s tough for any defense to stop. Having a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback to orchestrate it rises to the level of being unfair.
Nor do the Saints lack playmakers on defense. This side of the ball also produced a Rookie of the Year, with corner Marshon Lattimore winning the award for defensive newcomers. Lattimore, along with excellent safety Marcus Williams, make up a solid secondary—imperative in an NFC South division that has Matt Ryan and Cam Newton as the key rival quarterbacks.
Cameron Jordan is the player who really makes the New Orleans defense go though. The defensive end had 13 ½ sacks last year and is the kind of edge havoc-wreaker every D needs if they’re going to go on a Super Bowl run. The Saints ranked 10th in the league in points allowed last year, something that’s even more impressive when you consider the quality of their division, how easy it is to throw the ball in their indoor home and how quickly their own offense moves. An added bonus would be if first-round draft pick Marcus Davenport can be the next great rookie emergence at defensive end and draw attention away from Jordan.
The NFC competition is difficult. The Eagles are still the defending champs. The Packers still have Aaron Rodgers back. The Vikings still added Kirk Cousins to a team that already plays great defense. The Rams are getting a lot of love from the oddsmakers. And why don’t we through in the 49ers, who have yet to lose with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Not to mention Carolina and Atlanta. How does New Orleans separate themselves in this type of field and even make the playoffs, much less a run at a Super Bowl?
One big key will be the offensive line. This is a unit that falls in the category of “good enough, not great.” They’ll keep Brees upright and let him function, but will they control the middle of the lines well enough to finish drives? Will they convert big third downs? Those are the factors that will decide the close games that will in turn decide who makes the playoffs and then advances in January.
The other big key is Brees himself. The one problem in his career is a tendency to be a little interception-prone. Last year he stayed away from mistakes, only throwing eight picks. How well he does that this year—especially in the biggest games—will be decisive in his bid for another ring.
When the NFL season began, the New Orleans Saints were slipping into obscurity in the twilight of Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame career. The Saints had missed the playoffs three straight years with a record of 7-9 each time. They were eclipsed in their own division by the last two NFC champs, Carolina and Atlanta, and what seemed to be a rising force in Tampa Bay.
When the Saints lost their opener in Minnesota and the most notable takeaway was Adrian Peterson’s displeasure with Sean Payton, it looked like validation of the “fading into obscurity” theme. Getting blown out at home by New England a week later didn’t help. But something happened on the way to oblivion—New Orleans has completely turned their fortunes around. They haven’t lost since and their 6-2 record has them atop the NFC South.
Public perception of the Saints begins with Brees and the 38-year-old quarterback is playing at an MVP level. He leads the league in completion percentage (72%), ranks fifth in yards-per-attempt (8.1) and his traditional flaw—interceptions—are well under control. Brees ranks a solid ninth for interceptions as a percentage of passes thrown.
It’s safe to say that defense and the running game are not a part of the public perception with the Saints, unless it’s to criticize them. This year is different. Mark Ingram is one of 13 backs in the NFL on a pace for 1,000 yards and his 4.4 yards-per-carry ranks in the top half of those thirteen.
On the defensive side, the front four is playing outstanding football across the trenches. Cameron Jordan is leading the way with seven sacks, but the contributions of Alex Okafor, Sheldon Rankin and Tyeler Davision can’t be overlooked. In a conference whose best teams—the Eagles, Vikings and Seahawks—can all get after the quarterback, the Saints can keep pace.
The key to the rest of the season is going to be how the offensive line plays. There are no real standout performers and the interior is particularly weak. While Brees is good enough to get rid of the ball quickly and play high-percentage football, it will still take pass protection to let him get the ball downfield and get someone like a Ted Ginn sufficiently involved in the offense to win big games.
New Orleans’ schedule in the second half will provide sufficient opportunity for the offensive front to prove themselves. Two games with Atlanta are still ahead, as is a road trip to NFC West-leading Los Angeles and this Sunday is a visit to defensive-minded Buffalo.
This is an NFC race where the injury to Aaron Rodgers and the complete ineptitude of the Seattle offensive line mean there is no clear frontrunner, at least one with an established pedigree. If the Saints give Brees enough time to get the ball down the field, there’s no reason they can’t be the one that emerges.
The NFC playoff picture is reasonably stable at the top, but the push for the final wild-card spot looks wide-open, with seven teams packed within a game of each other in the loss column. Even if we concede playoff spots to Atlanta, Chicago, NY Giants, San Francisco and Green Bay, there’s still one more out there. Today we run down the seven teams with a shot, briefly summarize their strengths and weaknesses to this point and look at the schedule ahead…
Seattle (6-4): The final berth belongs to Seattle as of today, thanks to their head-to-head win over Minnesota who is the only other 6-4 team. The Seahawks are doing it with defense in particular their ability to rush the passer. They are tied for second in the NFL in sacks, a big reason why teams attempt so few passes against them.
Seattle can also throw the ball better than generally given credit for, as Russell Wilson has gradually improved throughout the year within the confines of a run-oriented offense that rightly plays it conservative so the defense can win games.
What Pete Carroll’s team has to worry about is the schedule. This is a dramatically different team away from home, where they are 5-0. The next two games are road trips to Miami and Chicago, and one of the home games left is San Francisco. The Seahawks should get to nine wins, but there’s no room for error in home games against Arizona and St. Louis.
Minnesota (6-4): To certain extent, the Vikings are similar to the Seahawks. They win games by running the ball on offense, and pressuring the quarterback on defense. The Vikes have helped out their attack by a kickoff return game that ranks 5th in the NFL, although the defense has had to bail out some shaky punt coverage work. Where the comparison starts to fall apart is that while the Viking defense is good, it’s not at the elite level of Seattle, and while quarterback Christian Ponder played well in Sunday’s win over Detroit, we haven’t the same kind of steady improvement that has been the case with Wilson.
Minnesota has a bye week coming up, but both games against Green Bay remain, as does a road trip to Chicago, along with another road trip to Houston. The standings tell you Minnesota is a playoff contender and with six games to go that’s all you can ask. But I don’t see how you would possibly predict it. Just getting to 8-8 against this schedule would be a big achievement.
Tampa Bay (5-4): Doug Martin is getting the attention at running back and has having a great season, giving the Bucs a nice running game. But don’t overlook how well Josh Freeman is cashing in his opportunities to throw the ball. Even though Tampa only ranks in the middle of the league in how often they pass, Freeman is first in yards-per-completion. When you put this kind of offense, together with a defense that can stop the run, you have enough to get into the playoff discussion.
Whether being in the discussion can be translated to actually being in the playoffs depends on whether this team ever finds a way to generate a pass rush. Of the seven teams we’ll discuss today, Tampa’s pass rush is the worst and the secondary isn’t good enough to cover for it. This has the makings of a team whose playoff hopes get dashed by blowing a big lead somewhere along the line.
The Bucs have their own schedule problems down the stretch, with both games against Atlanta remaining, along with a road trip to Denver. Tampa needs to win home games against Philly and St. Louis, plus a road trip to Carolina. Considering that all of these teams are capable of pulling an upset—and that the Eagles and Panthers each have more raw talent—finding four more wins looks daunting.
Detroit (4-5): I’m frankly disgusted with the Lions, after the way they were carved up by a Viking passing game that was missing Percy Harvin. Detroit had seemed to be rounding into form and a win here would have marked them as perhaps the favorite to get this final playoff spot and possibly to move further up the ladder. But the inability to run the ball has hindered the offense. This is not a huge surprise, but the subpar pass rush is a shocker, given that the front four should be one of the best in the league. And given this team’s persistent problems with discipline, I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn that Detroit is terrible at getting themselves field position on kickoffs and punt coverage.
And the schedule? How about Green Bay twice, Chicago, Houston and a road trip to resurgent Indianapolis. Good luck winning five of seven against that slate.
Dallas (4-5):We dug deep into the Cowboys last week, so I won’t rehash old ground, except to say that beating Philadelphia only proves that you’re not the most dysfunctional team in the NFC East. Proving you’re a playoff team is something else. At least the schedule is soft, with home games against Washington, Cleveland and Philly ahead.
New Orleans (4-5): The win over Atlanta was just what the Saints needed to get themselves back on the map. They’ve won four of five and they’re at least making more attempts to run the ball. But this is a team who is exactly what the mainstream media tells you they are—it’s Drew Brees gunning, not much in the way of run support and a genuinely awful defense. At the very least, they need to run the ball a little bit better so they can manage leads with their offense. Otherwise, similar to Tampa Bay, a blown game in the fourth quarter will doom a playoff push.
New Orleans’ schedule is positively brutal—they visit Atlanta, the New York Giants and Dallas, they have a home game with San Francisco and another home date with Tampa. In fact those are the next six games, before they close at home with Carolina. If we could start from scratch right now, the Saints have the momentum, but when you lose games to the Redskins, Panthers and Chiefs in September, that’s a tough self-imposed hurdle to overcome.
Arizona (4-5): Because of the 4-0 start, the Cardinals are still hanging on with this list, but that’s really a formality. The offensive line lost Levi Brown before the season began and can’t run the ball nor can they protect the passer. The defense is above average, but it can’t carry the team. And the injuries continue to pile up. O’Brien Schofield is lost for the year at outside linebacker and we still don’t know when Kevin Kolb will be back. The schedule includes road trips to Atlanta, San Francisco and Seattle and the Cards would need at least one of those to have a chance.
Bottom line? Arizona can feel like Mitt Romney did around 9:30 PM this past Tuesday—knowing there’s still a theoretical chance, but that realistically it’s all over but the shouting.
One final caveat on this race is that perhaps Green Bay shouldn’t be conceded a playoff spot. The Packers are 6-3, but do have significant injury issues and a couple tough road games ahead. If they lose both (at Detroit, at NY Giants) we can reassess the wild-card picture. For now though, these seven teams should assume they’re all after the same spot.
I see it coming down to Seattle and Dallas, as the Cowboys’ soft schedule will push them back into it and the inherent flaws in the other teams and/or their schedules are too big a hurdle. I’d have to lean the Seahawks—I think they’re a better team to begin with and the one-game edge in the loss column can’t be overlooked at this stage of the game.
The irony of this potential situation wasn’t lost on anyone in Week 3, after Seattle’s controversial Monday Night win over Green Bay—no owner in the NFL played hardball with the officials more than Jerry Jones. And the win the replacements gave Seattle in Week 3 is shaping up as the one that keeps Dallas out of the playoffs.