Sunday, November 14, 2010

Halftime: Saints Still Looking at Falcons’ Tail Feathers

The good news is that if the NFL season ended today, the New Orleans Saints would be in the playoffs.

The bad news is that the Black and Gold would make it as a wild-card team.

That they’d be the higher ranked of the NFC’s two non-division winning playoff team doesn’t matter unless both the Saints and the Green Bay Packers made it to the conference championship, thus sparing the cold weather averse Saints team from making the trek to Lambeau Field.

It’s not that 6-3 is a bad record. The Saints didn’t start out the 2007 or 2008 seasons that well at the end of nine games.

But that said, it’s not good enough when chasing the fast flying Atlanta Falcons, who not only lead the Saints by one and a half games (by virtue of the head-up tiebreaker) but are also currently the best team in the conference by record and thus would claim the number one seed in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Having the second best record in the conference means little if the team with the best record is in your same division.

The Jim Mora-era Saints are most familiar with this unenviable position, doing well in the conference but always being stuck behind the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the NFC West.

Right now the Falcons seem to have the same mojo the Saints had last year. Five of the Dirty Birds’ wins have been by a touchdown or less. Their impressive last second comeback against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night is the latest example of how they’ve found ways to win games from behind.

The Saints are in a tough spot in terms of overtaking the Falcons in the division. If the Saints swept the remaining games left on the schedule and the Falcons only dropped their Monday Night Football home game against the Saints, Atlanta would still have the edge according to the NFL’s tie-breaker rules.

Though the Saints and Falcons would have the same head-up and division, the third procedure relates to best won-loss percentage in common games.

Currently the Saints are 5-3 while the Falcons are 7-1, since the latter dropped a game to the Philadelphia Eagles (who the Saints do not face) while all of the Black and Gold’s were to common opponents.

So in addition to winning, the Saints need help. And Baltimore was supposed to be one of the teams that was expected to lend a hand.
In addition to their post-Christmas MNF game against the Saints, the Falcons host the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers and visit the Saint Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field, one of the toughest and loudest venues in the league.

The Saints on the other hand have to travel to Baltimore and Cincinnati in December and to Arlington on Thanksgiving afternoon. The Black and Gold return from the bye week next Sunday when they host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the Rams in December and close the regular season out with the Buccaneers in January.

Under new management, the Dallas Cowboys humbled the New York Giants in East Rutherford and might be a tougher opponent for the Saints than most fans thought they would be.

And the Saints will have to contend with frigid elements along with tough teams when they take on the Bengals and the Ravens.

Short of a meltdown in the ATL, the road to the Two Dat will go through other team’s stadiums. But that might not be a bad or insurmountable thing.

The Saints only road loss last season was a “trash game” against the Panthers in a contest where head coach Sean Payton wisely benched his starters. And of the Saints three losses in the 2010 season, only one (Arizona) was on the road.

And wild card teams have not only gone to the big game; five left with the Lombardi Trophy as well, with three wild-card Super Bowl champions winning all of their post-season playoff games on the road.

Payton titled his Super Bowl story/autobiography “Home Team” as a reference to the importance he placed on snagging the one seed.

But if the Saints can beat Atlanta in December in the Georgia Dome, then the Saints can compete in any other stadium in the league.

The way things stand it looks like the traveling Black and Gold faithful will end up dropping a few c-notes on Stub Hub and some travel sites if the team makes the playoffs.

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