It'd be a sin to dismiss the Saints

BY foxsports • December 10, 2010

Are the Super Bowl champs still in the mix for the Lombardi trophy?

Have the Packers found a new weapon and a new approach?

Do the Jets remember how to play football?

We examine with a game of boom or bust, SCHEIN 9 style.

1. The Saints still have the sizzle

It’s funny when you think about it. After all those years of being the “Aints” and underachieving, the Saints' 9-3 record is being picked apart the year after winning the Super Bowl. At any other point in franchise history, 9-3 would be celebrated. Now you have the skeptics and critics wondering if there’s enough offense, questioning the defense, thinking New Orleans cannot be considered elite and go deep in the playoffs.

It’s not always pretty and the offense had to bail out the defense the last two weeks, but this is a boom. The NFL should be on notice. The Saints, while flawed, still have the pop and sizzle with Drew Brees and the championship experience to do damage in the final quarter of the season and elevate their game into January.

Now, the odds are stacked against a repeat because the team to beat resides in the same division in the Atlanta Falcons. And the Saints, unlike last year where they had all the crucial playoff games at home, will have to go on the road via the wildcard and work their magic.

The defense must improve. It inexplicably blew a lead to the pathetic Bengals last week. And it wasn’t exactly an inspiring performance on Thanksgiving against Dallas. Plus, as Lance Moore told me on Monday on Sirius NFL Radio, “The best thing about the win against Cincinnati was the win itself. There weren’t a lot of things we did well.”

Moore rightly went on to lament the turnovers and penalties. It must get cleaned up. As majestic as Brees has been yet again, the flow and punch from a year ago hasn’t quite been the same. Again, fair or unfair, this is a comparison to the lofty heights from 2009. Injuries at running back have been a big problem. But Reggie Bush is back, Pierre Thomas will follow, and Chris Ivory has done a very solid job. And Brees still spreads the ball around brilliantly, with Sean Payton creating match-up problems with a bevy of talented, diverse and dynamic receivers and now two tight ends with the emergence of the young and talented Jimmy Graham.

For all of the questions about the Saints defense, do you realize they are ranked ninth in the NFL? Do you realize the Saints are fifth in the league in fewest points allowed? Yes, the late-game issues the past two games are troublesome. But New Orleans makes plays. Malcolm Jenkins stepped up against Dallas. Jon Vilma is a true star. Roman Harper is having an outstanding season. And defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is a mirror image of Payton calling plays on offense; bringing the heat at a rapid rate causing chaos to reign for the opposition.

Going into the final quarter of the season, I think the two most dangerous teams in the NFC are Atlanta and New Orleans. Did you see Sean Payton get Cincinnati to jump on a 4th-and-2, leading to the Saints' game-winning touchdown? The Saints are great and savvy and battle tested.

I never thought the Saints had the “Super Bowl hangover.” I thought teams got up to play the champs. The response and win on Halloween against Pittsburgh tells you how good this team actually is.

Shhhhhhhh. Don’t sleep on the Saints.

2. The Saints vs. the Rams is a playoff preview.

Absolutely. This is a boom.

I think Atlanta wins the NFC South and the Saints hold off the Giants/Eagles loser to claim the 5 seed. And I like the Rams over the Seahawks winning the worst division in the history of football.

Conventional wisdom says the Seahawks have the easier schedule down the stretch. And the two clubs meet in Seattle in Week 17. It’s never easy winning in Seattle with the “12th man” making noise and the Seahawks' amazing fans. But St. Louis can win in Seattle. I like Sam Bradford’s ability to make plays. Steven Jackson is having another big season. Plus, the Rams defense is more trustworthy than Seattle’s defense down the stretch of games. The light has gone on for Chris Long in his third season. James Laurinaitis is a true leader. Steve Spagnuolo has done a great job getting this team to overachieve.

3. The Packers need balance on offense to make a Super Bowl

According to Aaron Rodgers, our featured guest on Madden Football on Sirius NFL Radio, the run/pass ratio is overrated. And I agree. This is a bust. Sure, you would much rather have mixture and balance on offense with the likes of a strong runner in the injured Ryan Grant. But with Rodgers under center and slinging it around to a bevy of receivers, with the emphasis on the short and intermediate passing attack, with the great improvement on the offensive line this year with pass protection, you don’t need to force it. Rodgers is an absolute star.

4. James Starks is the best option at running back in Green Bay

This is a boom. Starks is an interesting case. As Mike McCarthy told us this week on Sirius NFL Radio, Starks hurt his hamstring in camp and never participated in any games, thus being placed on the PUP list to start the season. This was a setback after he missed his final year at the University of Buffalo, truly making it years since he played football. But Rodgers talked to Starks about showing his worth in practice. The physical back impressed McCarthy and got a crack to help seal the game against San Fran. I like his style. He was a great player for Turner Gill in college. As long as he holds onto the football, Starks should get the bulk of the carries down the stretch for Green Bay.

5. Devin McCourty is making a late push for defensive rookie of the year

This is a bust. Ndamukong Suh, baring an injury, has it wrapped with a classic neophyte campaign. But the Patriots corner has been incredible. McCourty has six picks and received high praise this week from teammate Tully Banta-Cain on Sirius NFL Radio. The linebacker compared McCourty to his one-time San Francisco teammate Patrick Willis when it comes to “work ethic, talent, and football IQ”. High praise indeed. No wonder Bill Belichick loves him.

6. The Jets need to get back to running the football

This is an absolute boom. And when we interviewed Damien Woody and Brandon Moore on SNY this week, the right side of the Jets offensive line agreed. This is the Jets' identity. It’s December. It’s cold. Run the ball with Shonn Greene. Re-establish your identity. Take the pressure off of a suddenly overmatched Mark Sanchez, who’s put together back-to-back wretched games.

7. The Jets defense will rediscover its pass rush

This is a bust. Talking to Jason Taylor on Thursday, he said the key is disrupting the quarterback not only with blitzes but also in the base defense. And Taylor said the Jets must get back to fundamentals. I don’t see it happening. It wasn’t just the non-existent pass rush against Tom Brady. The Jets pass rush has been invisible all year. What happened to Rex Ryan starring as the mad scientist? He just sent three against Brady and that was devastating.

8. “Same Old Jets” destined for a collapse.

Enough with the Same Old Jets nonsense. This team has won close games all year that it would’ve lost in prior seasons. This is a total bust. The Jets are 9-3. The league isn’t making them give back the nine after losing by a stunning 42 points on Monday night. You get the sense it has taken this team a while to get over the New England mess. But Chad Henne has been terrible. And the Jets are much better than Miami.

9. Jeff Fisher is a math major

This is a bust. Let’s see. You need two scores. You are in field-goal range. The Titans had a golden opportunity to kick a field goal and then try the on-side kick. It was obvious and easy. You needed the field goal at some point! Instead, Fisher kept throwing the ball with Kerry Collins. The Titans scored with zeroes on the clock. There was no time to try the kick and get the ball back. Tennessee loses by two. You cannot make this stuff up.