Saints look like team to beat

After earning first-round byes, there were four teams watching this weekend’s games from the comfort of their own homes, but I can promise you that they all felt a little uneasy after witnessing just how dominant the New Orleans Saints really are. Even with the substantial wins of the Houston Texans and New York Giants, and obviously the overtime thriller in Denver, the Saints were the only team to prove they are fully capable of a Super Bowl championship.

Don’t get me wrong, the Texans were impressive with how they were able to get outside of the usually stout Cincinnati defense, and their own defense returned to its dominating ways with four sacks and three takeaways. On offense, the Texans helped themselves with very productive first and second downs to get them into third and convertible situations that kept drives alive and the ball in the hands of Arian Foster. T.J. Yates had very rookie-like numbers with only 11 completions on the day, but he made plays when needed, such as the 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson. On defense, the pressure was actually most consistently applied from up the middle and if they weren’t able to actually get to the quarterback, they got their hands in passing lanes and actually knocked down (or caught … see J.J. Watt) a lot of balls at the line of scrimmage. At the second level, Brian Cushing disrupted the Bengals’ screen game all day long, something that he will need to continue to do against the Ravens in the divisional round.

As for the Giants, they beat the Falcons by 22 points and only allowed them two points on a safety in which Eli Manning was trying to throw the ball away but it didn’t pass the line of scrimmage. On offense, the running game finally showed up, gaining more than 170 yards rushing, and Atlanta simply couldn’t stop them with a seven-man box. Eli Manning was an efficient 23-of-32 for 277 yards and three touchdowns and rarely forced a throw into a tight window all day. On defense, the Giants were obviously assisted by the inability of the Falcons to convert on two fourth and inches while they were in the scoring zone, but they deserve more credit than just that. The Giants played solid across the defensive line and answered the critics in regards to stopping the off-tackle running game of Michael Turner. Even more impressive is how they were able to completely take away Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. Gonzalez is Matt Ryan’s most reliable target and he often goes to him on third downs, but Gonzalez only accounted for four receptions and just 44 yards on the day. The G-Men’s dominating defense actually started before the snap as they did an excellent job countering Ryan’s audibles at the line and had safeties moving in and out of the box based on those checks.

The most surprising performance of the weekend took place in Denver, as the Steelers had absolutely no answer for the Tim Tebow-led Broncos. The Steelers represented the best defense statistically that Tebow had faced by far, and all he did was throw for 316 yards, rush for 50 yards and, most important, had no turnovers. Even more impressive, when Tebow was under pressure from Dick Lebeau’s zone blitz, he moved around within the pocket and kept his eyes down field and looked for receivers to break open rather than just put his head down and scramble for his life. On defense, the Broncos were able to take advantage of the hobbling Ben Roethlisberger, keeping pressure in his face with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller off the edge. The defensive secondary took advantage of that pressure because when Roethlisberger forced throws down field, they were there to make a play on the ball.

As fun as that final weekend game was to watch, there was only one team that really put the rest of the playoff field on notice, and that was the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints did so many things well that it is hard to even find a starting place. What jumps out right away is the Saints ability to convert on third downs, but it is how they do it that is so impressive. Most teams set up third down with gains of three of four yards on first and second down to set up a third and short, or third and convertible as I refer to it. And while the Saints are still very effective on early downs, they actually led the NFL in third and 10-plus conversions, and when you can convert on third and long, that actually gives you quite a lot of flexibility in your play calling. The Saints were 7-for-11 on third-down conversions against the Lions and that will be an interesting trend to watch as the Saints will have to travel in San Francisco in the divisional round next week.

Darren Sproles is not just a change of pace back, because the Saints use him outside, inside, up the middle, off the tackle, in the screen game, down the field, etc. He is a complete back that has been the X-factor for this offense the entire year.

Just as he has done throughout his career, Drew Brees used his pocket mobility to stay alive within the structure of the offense and eluded pressure without having to scramble. By doing so, he keeps the entire field in play and doesn’t completely remove one half of the field by rolling out of the pocket. This forces the defense to cover from sideline to sideline even late in a play when typical “scramble rules” would be in effect. Also in the passing game, it is choreographically designed so that Marques Colston, Robert Meacham, and Jimmy Graham work in combinations, one setting up the other. There is no selfishness on this team, and any receiver is happy to run off a defender to help out his teammate on the other side.

In my opinion, the Saints were the team to beat heading into the playoffs, but they are even more impressive after the Wild-Card round than they were heading in. The 49ers obviously have a better defense than the Lions, but with the rhythm and sync that the Saints are playing with, it really won’t even matter.