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Saints look like team to beat in playoffs
Forget about Aaron Rodgers and his awe-inspiring 15-1 Green Bay Packers. Ditto for Tom Brady and his New England Patriots, the other team with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. No matter that the San Francisco 49ers have the best rush defense in the history of the world. And who cares that the New Orleans Saints have to play on wild-card weekend, which will likely be their only playoff game at the Superdome.
Does defense still win championships in the NFL, or is offense the new standard? We'll find out in these playoffs.
When the NFL season hits the reset button and begins anew this weekend, the third-seeded Saints look like the playoff team to beat — not just in the NFC, but in the whole NFL.
Here’s why: After their blowout victory in the final game of the season, a 45-17 throttling of the Carolina Panthers at home, the Saints are the hottest team in the NFL, owners of an eight-game winning streak and the biggest chunk of playoff momentum. Their record-setting offense peaked as the regular season drew to a close.
And unlike last year, when the Saints were unceremoniously dumped in the wild-card round by a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team, their offense is healthy. Their most relevant injury is to running back Mark Ingram, but their rotating, balanced cast of other runners — the speedy Darren Sproles, the bruising duo of Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory — means Ingram’s season-ending surgery barely registers on their playoff radar.
Want to argue that defense wins championships, and therefore it’ll be the 49ers playing the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis? Sorry, Charlie — this isn’t the 1976 NFL of the Steel Curtain, or the 1985 NFL of the punishing Chicago Bears, or even the 2000 NFL of Ray Lewis’ Baltimore Ravens.
This is today’s NFL, where 10 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards this season — three of those surpassing 5,000 yards. In this pass-friendly league, offenses win championships, and defenses just do their best to keep up. So say what you will about the Saints’ mediocre defense — 24th in the league in yards allowed, 13th in points allowed. You know which team’s defense ranks below them in both? The Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas’ favorite.
“I feel we’re healthier now at this point, although we had the benefit of the first-round bye in ’09, and we don’t this time,” quarterback Drew Brees said after Sunday’s victory, comparing this season to the Saints' Super Bowl-winning run two years ago. “I feel like we are playing as well as we’ve played all season long right now. The last few weeks have showed that. In every phase — offense, defense, special teams, run game, pass game, you name it. ... The real season starts now.”
Sunday’s game crowned the Saints as, if not the greatest offense of all time, at least the most decorated. Every five minutes another announcement rang out, another NFL record. They broke the 2000 St. Louis Rams’ record for most offensive yards in a season, their 7,474 yards nearly 400 yards more than the Rams that season. Brees extended his single-season passing yardage record, set the NFL record for most completions and highest completion percentage in a season, and had his 13th 300-yard passing game of the year, adding to his record. Sproles set the NFL single-season record for total net yards with 2,696. Jimmy Graham broke the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,310 (only to be eclipsed later Sunday by the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, who ended with 1,327).
Come playoffs, though, records don’t mean jack. But what the Saints showed in their final regular-season game — a relentless offense paired with a good-enough defense — should make other NFC teams tremble. Straight off, the Saints blasted down the field, a four-play, 80-yard drive capped with a 35-yard touchdown run by Ivory. Second drive, a methodical march: nine plays, 83 yards, with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston. Brees threw one interception, and the Saints punted once, but other than those and an end-of-game kneel-down, the Saints' balanced offense scored on every single drive.
“We have been able to have that balance,” head coach Sean Payton said. “We have been lucky and fortunate to ID and evaluate the right type of guys that come in here with the idea that winning and the team is the most important for us.”
The only thing working against the red-hot Saints is that they likely won’t have the Superdome playoff advantage past this Saturday’s game against the Detroit Lions. In their 2009 Super Bowl season, they had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; last year’s wild-card upset was played in Seattle.
Yet let’s not overstate this home-field “advantage.” Yes, the Saints would rather be hosting. But home teams are only 33-27 in the playoffs the last six seasons — not much of an edge. The prospect of playing at Lambeau Field in the NFC title game might be daunting, but remember that the Saints took the Packers down to the wire at Lambeau in Week 1, losing 42-34 after the Packers ended the game with a goal-line stand. And the 49ers — who would be the Saints' divisional round opponent if New Orleans beats the Lions — have looked vulnerable lately, too: a loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14 and barely beat the Seahawks and Rams in the last two weeks.
Plus, if you’re betting your life on it, who do you take: Drew Brees or Alex Smith?
And don’t get in a huff that I’m giving the two No. 1 seeds, the Patriots and the Packers, short shrift. As many top seeds have won the Super Bowl in the past decade as have No. 6 seeds: two apiece. The prospect of playing at Lambeau Field might be daunting, but the way Brees and his teammates are talking, they’re confident they can play anywhere.
“Two years ago we kind of had that crisis situation to end the season (with three straight losses in 2009),” linebacker Scott Shanle said. “This year it was early in the season against St. Louis. I think since that game we’ve gotten better each week. It feels good to be peaking right now, but we have a whole new season ahead of us.”
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.
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