In 2009 I fearlessly believed the Saints would go all the way. I even bought my plane ticket to Florida well before the playoffs.
So will the team achieve the Two Dat?
Let me first say that the first five games will determine the position the team finds itself in come December as the Saints open up against two division rivals and three teams that will be in the hunt for their divisions...which matters when it comes to determining tie-breakers for home field advantage.
By virtue of winning the NFC South, the Black and Gold will face the other three NFC division winners, as set by the NFL's logical and brilliant schedule rotation system (which will go the way of the Dodo in part if they expand the season to 18 games- but that's another rant).
The Saints open up against the team they defeated for the NFC championship, the Minnesota Vikings, who are considered the consensus team to repeat in the NFC North. Then the Black and Gold travels to Candlestick (or whatever that call the oddly shaped stadium near San Francisco) to face the Forty-Niners, picked by many to win their division.
Then it's back home to take on the Dirty Birds and Panthers before visiting the Arizona Cardinals, who won the NFC West in 2009 and might contend for the division's top spot if they can get their quarterback situation settled.
While Atlanta is the team’s lone threat in the NFC South, a loss to Carolina is very relevant in the event of a tie-breaker as divisional record would come in play if the Saints and Falcons split their two games. Then again, the rebuilding Carolina franchise could surprise people in the same way the rebuilding Saints did in 2006. Either way the Panthers game is going to matter on at least two levels.
A loss to any of the five teams would put the Saints at a disadvantage for homefield advantage in the post-season. Am I getting ahead of myself worrying about playoff positioning? No. Winning the division isn’t enough anymore. We won’t matching Lombardi trophies and gold and diamond encrusted knuckles on our players, coaches and training facility ground keepers.
Don’t get me wrong, it could all go to hell in a handbasket and Sean Payton will remain the greatest Saints coach in the history of the franchise just for what he did in 2009 (what he did in his first season arguably qualified him for that distinction- though I maintained it was Jim Mora until the Super Bowl win). But while we have the talent and the coaches, we might as well win, win, win.
And while the Saints did well on the road (losing only a throw-away game to Carolina in the season finale), I don’t think the Black and Gold would have made it to Miami in February had the team needed to detour to Minneapolis first. If you haven’t been to a road game (or the hostility standard, Soldier Field for the NFC Championship game), you don’t know what it’s like to play in someone else’s house.
A loss to the Vikings would in essence put the Saints two games behind them, as the other Purple and Gold would have the head-up tiebreaker. Short of a repeat of their late season collapse, the Saints will have a tough time catching up.
An early loss to Atlanta would jeopardize the team’s homefield advantage prospects but winning the division. The rematch will be on the Monday Night Football game after Christmas in the Georgia Dome, where the Dirty Birds were 6-2 last season. The Saints barely snuck out of the ATL with a win and you can bet the Georgia Dome won’t look like Saints-occupied territory if the Falcons are still in contention come December.
While expecting perfection in 2010 is unreasonable, a loss to Atlanta, Minnesota or San Francisco will put the Saints in a hole they will need to work hard to dig themselves out of and need a little help along the way.
And then there’s the Thanksgiving Day game at Jerry Jones’s Palace in Dallas. A loss there could mean the Saints fare no better than second seed and having to go back there for a second time in the playoffs…and perhaps a third time if they win that one.
Questions at linebacker and defensive tackle and the defense’s capacity to force teams to punt linger, especially since free safety Darren Sharper will be out for a third of the season, if not longer. And the Saints are on thin ice at running back if Pierre Thomas goes down.
While I think the 2010 Saints are a better team than the 2009 Saints, I don’t think they’re deeper. And once the injury bug bites them, the Saints might not be able to stop the bleeding.
Overall I see the Saints finishing 11-5 in a tie with Atlanta for first in the NFC South.
The Falcons have made improvements on the defensive side of the ball and if their talented offense rebounds, they are going to give the Black and Gold a run for their money.
So here are my calls:
Wild Cards: New Orleans, Green Bay
Wild Cards: New England, Cincinnati
NFC Championship: Green Bay v. Dallas
AFC Championship: Baltimore v. New York
Super Bowl: Dallas v. Baltimore
World Champion: Baltimore Ravens (the most complete team in football)