Let the record show that in those moments when I’m hilariously wrong about a certain prediction or prognostication or pontification, I’m not afraid to admit them or even make light of them.
Case in point? Before the season started, as part of my 2020–2021 NFL season preview (which ended up as little more than a haphazard post on Instagram), I agonized over whether to pick the Dallas Cowboys or the New Orleans Saints as the team that would win the George Halas trophy as the National Football Conference champions, and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl LV.
Obviously, I was dead wrong in eventually choosing the Cowboys to be that team; I suppose that’s karmic retribution, of sorts, for saying anything nice about them. But I’ll take a little bit of solace in recognizing that the arguments for why the Saints could be the very best team in the conference were plentiful, if not obvious:
- The most productive passer in the history of the NFL at quarterback, gunning for that one last Super Bowl ring as the capstone for his first-ballot Hall of Fame career
- One of the three best running backs in the NFL, who also happens to be one of the two best dual-threat backs in the league as well
- One of the three best wide receivers in the NFL, for whom you could actually make a compelling argument as being the best at his position
- An offensive line that perennially ranks among the best in the league in both run-blocking and pass-protection
- A talent-laden defense with veterans at every level of the group, which collectively might’ve matched — if not surpassed — the potency of their offensive counterparts (the Saints have guys ranked in the top 8 at their respective positions at every level of the defense, according to ProFootballFocus)
- A Head Coach who continues to perform the duties entrusted of his position as well as anyone else in the NFL
Fast forward to the present, in which all of those things remain true. Even in an injury-marred season, the New Orleans Saints finished with a 12–4 record —giving them the second-best winning percentage in the NFC. This could very well be the last go ‘round for Drew Brees’ time in the Big Easy. When Sean Payton decides to leave Nola is far less defined, since whomever he makes the successor to Brees will still have the services of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, and an offensive line bookended by maybe the best pair of offensive tackles in the conference (Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk).
But the future is “then,” and these 2020–2021 NFC Playoffs are “now” — meaning it’s Brees orchestrating this offense with that supporting cast, along with a defense that’s plenty capable of serving as the backbone for a deep playoff run themselves.
In other words: if you really take the proverbial step back to look at the bigger picture, the New Orleans Saints are arguably the most complete and well-rounded team in the NFC. And while the journey to this point in time might’ve been a bit of a bumpy ride, the overall timing and circumstances in which they enter these playoffs are damn near perfect for the aforementioned deep postseason run.
The very nature of the Super Bowl and the single-elimination NFL playoffs that lead up to it is that they just as much identify and reward the team playing the best at that point in time as they do the best team overall — just ask the 1992 San Francisco 49ers or 1998 Minnesota Vikings or 2005 Indianapolis Colts about what it means to be the best team in the NFL for every single month of the season except January. There is definitely something to be said about the idea of an NFL team that “peaked” too early in the season, and ran out of gas down the stretch.
And that’s what makes the New Orleans Saints particularly interesting, if not dangerous, in these NFC Playoffs. New Orleans looks like team damn near close to “firing on all cylinders” status, considering the fact that they’re 5–1 in their last 6 games in which Brees started under center for them (including the postseason), with margins of victory 35, 14, 19, 26, and 12 points in those games.
But even more relevant than the fact that New Orleans has been playing well of late is the highly paradoxical fact that the Saints are actually getting healthier at this time in the season.
Think about it:
- Brees has shown signs of being able to shake off the inevitable rust that would come from his four-week absence due to injury (I fully admit that referring to 11 rib fractures and a punctured lung merely as “injury” doesn’t really do it justice)
- Thomas and fellow wide receiver Deonte Harris got similar opportunities to knock off the rust from their injury-related absences
- Kamara and Emmanuel Sanders got the same opportunity as they returned from their COVID-based exiles.
And one of my favorite wrinkles in all of this? Let’s drill in to the above-referenced “shaking off the rust” mention for a moment. What do the majority of top-tier college football programs do to start the season, before they begin taking on their conference rivals? They schedule a tune-up game against a comically overmatched Tiffin University or New Mexico State-type opponent, to help their team smoothen out any rough edges and get the team’s mind fully in gear for when the season really gets going.
How is this relevant to the NFL playoffs? Simple, actually. Kicking the shit out of a “even we can’t believe we got here” Chicago Bears team was the perfect tune postseason tune-up for New Orleans, as they get set to potentially — if not inevitably — take on the NFC’s other heavyweight contenders.
The first of those bouts New Orleans will participate in takes place on Sunday evening, in the form of a visit from a red-hot Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
(Quick aside to Saints’ fans: in addition to facing Brady and the Buccaneers, you’ll also be contending against the NFL’s in-game officiating; Tampa’s win over Washington last Saturday was FILLED with egregious calls that were mysteriously all ruled in favor of Brady’s team.)
The last time Tampa Bay faced a New Orleans team firing on all cylinders, it was a blood bath — the Saints stomped the Buccaneers to a 38–3 tune (in Tampa, no less). That was the second of the two divisional games between those two teams, with the first one being the Week 1 home win by New Orleans — a 34–23 win that was far more one-sided in New Orleans’ favor than the final score would indicate.
History tells us that New Orleans has better than a 66.6% chance of defeating Tampa for the third time this season. Even from a qualitative perspective, it’s hard to see Tampa drastically changing the course of this rivalry, considering this game will be played in New Orleans, and the last two times the Saints lost at home were a 37–30 shootout against a Green Bay Packers team led by likely NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and a 32–29 loss to Kansas City in a game that Taysom Hill was New Orleans’ starter at quarterback (oh yeah — the Chiefs were also led by that Patrick Mahomes guy you may have heard of).
Against the Buccaneers on Sunday, New Orleans would be wise to review the how the Washington Football Team exposed the opportunities to be taken advantage of against the Buccaneers’ nicked-up secondary; any advantage that favors the passing attack of the Saints’ would obviously be one that the latter would be apt to exploit.
As Washington was able to do, at some level, against Tampa: the Buccaneers’ relentless blitz does leave open patches of space that teams who spread the ball around among multiple pass-catching options — like the Saints — can take advantage of (Washington’s Taylor Heinecke completed passes to 7 different receivers against Tampa — and it would’ve/should’ve been 8 different guys if Washington actually had guys who could catch the football).
When Tampa is on offense, the plan remains the same: even at his current level of play, Brady can still get cranky when he has to face a stiff pass rush. This also works in New Orleans’ favor, given that the Saints boast the best collective front seven of any team in the NFC playoffs when it comes to bringing the pass-rushing heat on opposing offenses.
When thinking the path for New Orleans to win the conference, I keep coming back to one fact referenced earlier: everyone associates the Saints with a high-powered offense, but it’s their defense that could really take them a long ways in the playoffs.
Most people don’t realize that New Orleans has guys ranked among the top 8 players at their respective positions at every level of the defense (according to PFF): defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle David Onyemata, middle linebacker Demario Davis, and free safety Marcus Williams. That’s not even mentioning uber-talented lockdown cornerback Marshon Lattimore, or key veterans with legitimate Super Bowl experience like safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive tackle Malcom Brown.
That level of talent assembled is why the Saints actually finished with a #2 overall rating in overall defensive Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) among all NFL teams; they were actually ranked #2 against the run, and #3 against the pass.
Simply translated, it means that New Orleans’ offense remains capable of going toe-to-toe with any other opposing offense led by the starry quarterbacks they’ll likely be facing, but their offense will have the added benefit of not having to score every single time they have the football, since their defense is equally capable of limiting the damage via the the opponent’s firepower.
Between New Orleans’ balance across both sides of the football, and the circumstances in which they’re entering the playoffs, it’s hard not to see them as a top contender to win the conference. Bouncing Brady from the postseason and winning a playoff game in the unwelcoming confines of Lambeau Field in January are far from a walk in the park.
But this Saints team is as well put together as any iteration and recent memory, and very much capable of making that march to Super Bowl LV. ■
NFL Divisional Playoffs Picks
Lines via MyBookie, as of Friday morning (1/15)
LA Rams at Green Bay (-7)
Baltimore at Buffalo (-2.5)
Cleveland at Kansas City (-10)
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-3)
Last Week: 2–4