The New Orleans Saints are still in the playoff hunt at 5-6. Here are five reasons why they will still make the playoffs.
If the season ended today the Saints would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs. However, the whole “if the season ended today” thing is played out because, well, the season doesn’t end for five weeks. Instead of worrying where your team is, wonder where your team may go.
For the Saints, it could certainly still be to the playoffs. They sit two games out in the division, and one and a half games out of the wild card. But with five games to go, here are five reasons that they can make up that ground.
5. Drew Brees
Say what you want, Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the league right now in week 13. He is controlling the offense, making multiple reads, beating teams over the top and in the dink and dunk, and of course his great head first diving touchdowns. Brees leads the NFL in yards, attempts, completion percentage, and touchdowns. The completion percentage is likely the most impressive, given the much higher number of attempts than others. He also ranks sixth in yards per attempt.
The best part is, he is spreading the ball around. Five players on the Saints have at least 30 receptions so far, and three have over 50. On top of that, ten different Saints players have caught a touchdown pass. He is distributing the ball well and creating a high-functioning offense.
The NFL has been, is and always will be a quarterback driven league. You can only go as far as your game manager, and it is really the only position in which people assign wins and losses to. For the Saints to have the best player at the most important position makes you want to stop and think before writing the New Orleans Saints off.
Sep 26, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) scores a touchdown past Atlanta Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds (53) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Falcons defeated the Saints 45-32. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
4. Run Game
Through six weeks, the Saints running game was not effective. Mark Ingram was averaging 3.8 yards per carry and had just 334 yards in his first six games. Tim Hightower had just 14 carries to compile just 48 yards. Then, Mark Ingram fumbled twice, got benched and somehow everything got fixed.
Ingram was benched after just three carries against the Seahawks, and against one of the best run defenses in the NFL, Tim Hightower ran for 102 yards in relief to help give the Saints a win. From the time Ingram was benched through Week 12, Hightower has had 84 attempts and ran for 330 yards. However, what is really worth noting is that Ingram has run for 382 yards in the past four games on just 47 carries.
Through the first six games, the Saints ran for 494 yards. In the last five, they ran for 767. They had three 100-yard rushers in the past five weeks. That would be three more than the past six weeks. They also have had two, 200-yard rushing games as a team during this rushing rampage.
Whatever it is that ignited this running game, it is working. As the games become more important and we creep into December, it becomes imperative to run the ball. To have a productive ground game on top of Drew Brees gives this team plenty of hope.
Sep 11, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive back Reggie Nelson (27) pushes New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) out of bounds after a catch in the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
3. Michael Thomas
One thing that the New Orleans Saints did not have their 2015 7-9 team was a stud wide receiver like Michael Thomas. Thomas is only a rookie, but he has the physical attributes and all of the physical traits to be a top line wide receiver. He has lived up to it so far and is by far the best rookie wide receiver.
Thomas has 65 catches for 789 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He leads all rookies in targets, catches, touchdowns and yards, and leads all Saints in the same categories. Thomas, at 6-foot-3, and can high point and dominate with his physical size. He also has strong footwork and is as fleet and able to break tackles and extend runs after the catch. He also has exceptionally sure hands.
Brandin Cooks is a nice wide receiver, but he does have limitations in his skill set. To add a true number one threat beside Cooks really opens up the passing game as a whole. When this team already has Drew Brees, and they have recently discovered running game things are rolling. To add in that they now have a true number one hitting his strides next to a strong deep threat, and producer after the catch in Cooks, and this offense is truly firing on all cylinders. It really gives them a chance to win any game on their schedule.
Jun 14, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (99) during the first day of minicamp sessions at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
2. Defensive Improvement
On top of a top five offense from 2015 improving in multiple areas, the defense improved across the board as well. On the defensive line, the drafting of Sheldon Rankins, and the signing of Paul Kruger and Nick Fairley are starting to pay dividends. Fairley is playing like the player he was once drafted to be, and Rankins, a 2016 first-round pick has two sacks in four games at the defensive tackle position.
Dannell Ellerbe, like Rankins, is back from injury, and he only played in four games in 2015 as well. However, in his four starts this season, he has three sacks and 21 tackles to make an obvious impact in the linebacker corps.
In the secondary, the growth of third round pick Vonn Bell is starting to show as well. With Delvin Breaux back from injury, and Bell now starting in eight games as a rookie, the secondary is showing upgrades from the 2015 version as well.
Since Rankins has come back from his injury, the Saints have given up just 23 points per game. It does not sound great, but before that they were giving up 30.7 points per game. The defense is not quite good yet, but it most certainly is not bad anymore. With the offense in the position that it is in, that is all the Saints need to stay competitive.
Nov 3, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and head coach Dan Quinn looks on prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
1. Teams above them can implode
At this point, the list of teams that the Saints are chasing is plentiful. Most of the Falcons, Giants, Redskins, Buccaneers, and Vikings will have to slip up in one way or another for the Saints to have a chance to make the playoffs. Luckily for them, each team has a couple glaring holes.
The Vikings are in a free-fall since starting 5-0. They have gone 1-5 since and their offensive line will cause them to finish well below the Saints in the standings. The Redskins currently rank 32nd in rushing DVOA. With that said, David Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, and Jordan Howard are all still on the schedule. The Giants are currently in the five seed, meaning they are the last of the Saints worries. Still, if the Redskins do not implode, it could be a Week 17 matchup between those two teams that will have final wild card implications.
Then there is the NFC South. The Bucs sit one game ahead of the Saints, but the two teams play twice. In that case, the Saints literally will control their destiny. They sit two games behind the Falcons, but if there is one thing about the Falcons, it is that they love to choke. Heck, just last year the team got off to a 6-1 start before sputtering to 2-7 down the stretch.
The Saints also will see the Falcons in Week 17, which would mean that they just have to be within one game of the Falcons to be in striking distance. The playoffs are within reach for the Saints over the next five weeks. They have the weapons to make it happen, so stay tuned.