Friday, December 31, 2010

Week Seventeen Preview: Playoff-bound Saints Host Bucs, Pray for Panthers

When the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers last met during week six in Raymond James Stadium, the results were not pretty for the home team with the visiting Saints winning 31-6. New Orleans dominated the Buccaneers on both sides of the ball, with the Black and Gold defense limiting the Bucs offense to a single score- and that was in the fourth quarter.

The Saints’ offense was as prolific as the score implies. Quarterback Drew Brees completed 21 of 32 passes to ten players for 263 yards and three touchdowns and was picked off once.

Most notably, undrafted rookie free agent Chris Ivory had a huge day, rushing for 158 yards on 15 carries and had a 17-yard reception.

Last year, the Saints also beat down the Bucs in Tampa by a 38-7 margin. However, it was a different story when the Buccaneers came to the Superdome in week 16. Tampa Bay’s record was 2-12 and appeared to be a mere speed bump for the Saints en route to securing the first seed in the NFC playoffs, yet Tampa Bay slipped past the NFC South division champions with an overtime win.

Tampa Bay is still in the hunt for a trip to the post-season, surprising most football observers with their strong record (courtesy of sweeping the weak NFC West, a pedestrian task the Saints could not perform) and will arguably be hungrier than the Saints.

The Buccaneer offense has played well with the emergence of young talent including 2009 first round draft pick quarterback Josh Freeman, 2010 fourth round draft pick wide receiver Mike Williams and undrafted rookie running back LeGarrette Blount.

Freeman has had an impressive sophomore season, passing for 3,196 yards, 23 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. Freeman has also rushed for 353 yards. Tight end Kellen Winslow, in his seventh year, has had a strong season with 63 receptions for 702 yards and 5 touchdowns.

The Buccaneers’ offense ranks 20th in points per game (21.2), 18th in total yards per game (336.3) with an average of 208.5 yards in the air (21st in the NFL) and 127.8 yards on the ground (7th in the NFL), with Blount accounting for a plurality of the Buccaneers’ rushing yards.

The Tampa Bay defense has been relatively stout, ranking 12th in points allowed per game (20.3) and 15th in total yards allowed per game (334.5). The Buccaneer defense has been stronger against the pass than the run, ranking 6th in the former (201.1 ypg) but a lowly 28th (133.4 ypg) in the latter.

One major blow to the Buccaneer secondary was when cornerback Aqib Talib, who had 6 interceptions in 2010, was injured in the Atlanta game and was placed on injured reserve. The Buccaneers are tied for seventh in the league in picks with 18.

The Saints’ offense has been pass heavy with Brees’s arm and his receiving corps’ hands and legs accounting for 75% of the offense. The Saints’ offense ranks 10th in scoring average (24.7) and 6th in yards per game (377). The Saints are 2nd in the NFL in passing yards (282.8) per game and 27th in rushing yards (94.2) per game. Ivory, the Saints’ top running back, hasn’t played since straining his hamstring during the Saint Louis Rams game in week 14 but practiced “full” on Thursday so he will likely see some playing time on Sunday.

One key Saint nursing an injury is Brees’s favorite target, Marques Colston. The tall wide-out hurt his knee against the Falcons and received a scope on Tuesday. Though Saints head coach Sean Payton didn’t rule him out for the Tampa Bay game, it’s unlikely Colston will play with the playoffs around the corner.

Kick return specialist Courtney Roby, who had suffered a concussion against the Seattle Seahawks, was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Roby, who is also slated as a wide receiver but rarely used in that capacity, was replaced on the roster by wide receiver Adrian Arrington, who has spent most of 2010 on the team’s practice squad. Payton conceded that the former Michigan star was brought up due in part to Colston’s injury.

The Saints’ defense has allowed the 6th fewest points per game (18.9), 5th in yards allowed per game (305.5), 2nd in passing yards allowed per game (191.3) and 18th against the run (114.2). Despite the improved defense in terms of yards given up, the Saints are not the ballhawks they were last season, thus far ranking 30th in interceptions with nine.

The Saints’ defense must contend with an opposing quarterback who can pick up yards with his feet and arm and a running back who has been averaging 5.2 yards per carry and ran for 164 yards last week against Seattle.

Brees should be able to exploit Talib’s absence and though Colston will see limited if any action, the Saints quarterback is known for spreading the ball around. Expect wide receiver Lance Moore, number Nine’s second favorite target, to have an expanded role.

The Other Games That Matter

The Saints’ playoff path will be impacted by two other games. If the Atlanta Falcons lose to the visiting Carolina Panthers and the Saints beat the Buccaneers, then the Black and Gold would win the NFC South and clinch the first seed in the conference playoffs. However if either the Saints lose or the Falcons win, then New Orleans would retain their status as the fifth (top) seed wild card team traveling to the winner of the Seattle Seahawks-Saint Louis Rams contest.

And the Bookies’ Picks?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan chalks the Saints as an 8-point favorite and the Falcons as a 14.5-point favorite over the Panthers. With the Buccaneers playing for a shot at the post-season and the Panthers looking to send coach John Fox out of Carolina with a win, I’d take the points in both games, though both New Orleans, especially with their full complement of running backs active, and Atlanta will likely win their games outright.

Visiting Saint Louis is currently a 2.5 favorite over Seattle and starting quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Memo to Carolina Panthers Coach John Fox

Attention John Fox.

As your career with the Carolina Panthers comes to an end, you have much to be proud of.

Sure your team currently stands at 2-13 and will finish with the second-worst record in franchise history, but conditions were beyond the control of even the most gifted head coach. The expectations for the 2010 season were low after losing the longtime anchors of your offense (Jake Delhomme) and defense (Julius Peppers) to free agency.

Short of pulling a rabbit out of his headset, your days in Carolina were numbered before the Panthers kicked off their first game, as the quality of your team decreased in a division with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and a strong Atlanta Falcons club that was a much better team than their 2009 record indicated.

But you did enjoy success as coach of the Panthers, the high-water mark coaching the Panthers’ in Super Bowl XXXVIII. It should be noted that the expansion Panthers played their first season in 1995 and that you inherited a 1-15 club from George Seifert two years before.

Even the great Tom Landry received walking papers and there could be as many as a dozen new coaches in 2011 NFL season.

And through no credit or fault of yours, you will leave your team with the number one selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. In the case of some coaches, that’s about all they leave behind.

So as you enter your final game of a terrible season as the most successful coach in the history of the franchise, you could enhance your chances for employment with another team by engineering the mother of all upsets by defeating the Falcons on Sunday.

And if the 2010 NFL season ends up being defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s last with the Saints by succumbing to the entreaties of a number of NFL clubs looking for a new head coach, Sean Payton might end up with a big vacancy on his staff.

So if you’re looking to score points with the Saints front office, I would imagine facilitating home field advantage for the playoffs would go a long way with a head coach who handed over part of his paycheck to land the defensive coordinator he wanted.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Week Sixteen Review: World Champions, Reaffirmed

The folks in Atlanta had to keep those NFC South Champion t-shirts and caps in the boxes for at least another week as the New Orleans Saints upset the Atlanta Falcons in their home nest on Monday Night Football, 17-14.

Though the Saints still need a gridiron miracle from the Carolina Panthers in addition to beating the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday in order to win the division, the victory in the Georgia Dome was important.

First and foremost, the win sends the Saints into post-season for the second year in the row. The Saints haven’t appeared in the post-season in consecutive years since the Jim Mora era (1990-1991-1992).

Secondly the Saints will fare no worse than finishing as the fifth seed in the NFC, which means the Black and Gold will face the winner of the Seattle Seahawks-Saint Louis Rams NFC West (worst) showdown next Sunday. And while there have been no “automatic” wins for the Saints this season (remember the Cardinals), it goes without saying that the team would rather face whatever team that emerges from the weakest division in the NFL.

Third, there’s always the remote possibility of the Panthers winning next Sunday and the Saints potentially having homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

But perhaps the most notable benefit of the Saints victory on Monday night was that it was a reaffirmation for the defending Super Bowl champs as they proved they are as good as the conference’s best team by record.

And they achieved the win by digging themselves out of the hole that was dug through errors and flukes.

While quarterback Drew Brees completed 71% of his passes for 302 yards and a touchdown, number Nine once again had to carry a disproportionate amount of the offense. Brees was picked off twice, with the first returned for a touchdown. Brees however made a good defensive play after his second interception, quickly tackling defensive end John Abraham, saving big return yards. The Falcons ended up having to punt after that turnover.

Running back Pierre Thomas also had a big game, getting yards on the ground late in the game and helping ice the victory for the Saints late in the fourth quarter. Thomas racked up 63 rushing yards plus a touchdown on 19 carries for an average of 3.3 yards. Thomas accounted for practically all of the team’s rushing yards on the day.

The big stars of the night were the Saints defense, who tackled well, forced punts and snagged two loose balls, including a key fumble from Atlanta running back Michael Turner’s hands caused by defensive end Jeff Charleston and retrieved by linebacker Marvin Mitchell on the Saints one yard line. Turner had not fumbled a single time in the 2010 season until then.

The Saints defense largely stifled the Atlanta offense. Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan barely completed a majority of his passes, Turner was held to a mere 48 yards and most remarkably when considering how he tore the Saints up earlier this season, tight end Tony Gonzalez was limited to a pair of catches for 12 yards.

Wide receiver Roddy White, who is making a big to supplant Cincinnati’s Chad Ochocinco as the league’s leading Tweet-Twit, proved more prolific at running his mouth leading up to the game than making plays on Monday night. The NFL’s leading receiver in yards had a touchdown but caught only three passes for a mere 43 yards.

Though Ryan was sacked only once (by defensive end Will Smith), the Saints defense successfully contained one of the NFL’s top scoring offenses.

Finally, accolades should also go out to special teams. Kicker Garrett Hartley booted a 52 yard field goal, punter Thomas Morstead gave the Saints’ defense good field position thanks to some good punt bounces and two touchbacks on kickoffs and the kick/punt coverage was solid.

Black and D’oh Moments

Brees went to the well one too many times while under pressure. After making an awkward toss to Thomas, who managed to bring the ball back to the line of scrimmage, the Saints quarterback made a bad toss that was grabbed by defensive end Chauncey Davis and brought back to the house.

And then there were the flags, eight for almost the distance of the field (92 yards).

Cornerback Leigh Torrence didn’t help his team’s cause with an unnecessary roughness penalty for ten yards on a punt return.

Tackle Jermon Bushrod was saved from becoming the resident goat thanks to the victory. Between playing doormat to the Atlanta pass rush and penalties, including a false start that negated a Brees touchdown pass, Bushrod didn’t play well and remains the weakest link on a Saints offensive line that is not playing to the same high level of last season.

Moving the Chains and His Record

Brees further advanced his franchise records for pass completions, yards and touchdowns on Monday night. Brees’s new Saints all-time records stand at: 1,998 completions, 22,722 passing yards and 154 touchdowns.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Week Sixteen Preview: Chasing Atlanta

Back in Week Three, I predicted that a New Orleans Saints loss to the Atlanta Falcons could be the difference between a first round bye and having to settle for a wild-card spot.

Thirteen weeks later and voila!

As the Saints enter the penultimate game of the 2010 NFL regular season, the Black and Gold finds itself likely going to the playoffs, but not in the preferred manner.

Since kicker Garrett Hartley missed on THAT occasion, the Saints have been staring at red and black tail-feathers the entire season. And a win by the Saints in the Georgia Dome, a place where the Dirty Birds haven’t lost a game all season, will help the defending world champions’ swagger, but might be irrelevant in terms of the NFC South division.

Without getting too detailed, the Saints need to beat both Atlanta and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while the Falcons must also lose in their final game against the hapless Carolina Panthers.

I’ll take “Things That Aren’t Going to Happen” for $1000 Alex.

More than likely, the Monday Night Football game could end up being the first of two trips by the Saints to the Georgia Dome before the Super Bowl is played in Jerry Jones’s palace sans Jerry Jones’s team.

A win by the Saints on Sunday would assure the team of faring no worse than being the 5th seed in the NFC, which would still give them a shot at hosting the conference championship game. More than likely, Saints season ticket holders who “invested” in 2010 playoff tickets will have done nothing more than made an early deposit on next year’s season tickets, AKA provide Tom Benson with an interest-free loan.

Atlanta is arguably the best team in the NFC, if not in the entire league. They have the same record as the AFC’s supermen, the New England Patriots, and are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, having the NFL’s 5th best offense in points scored (26.4) per game and the 7th best defense in points (18.6) allowed per game.

Led by quarterback Matt Ryan and possessing the league’s 5th ranked running back in rushing yards (Michael Turner- 1,256) and the league’s top wide-out in receiving yards (Roddy White- 1,284), the Falcons’ offense can slice opposing defenses in the air and the ground.

Atlanta’s defense is almost as good. Defensive end John Abraham is in his 11th season and has shown he still has it in him to make big plays. The veteran defensive lineman is third in the NFL in sacks with 12. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton leads his team in tackles with 87 solos and has forced three fumbles, made two sacks and has an interception.

The Falcons’ defense has had more success stopping the run (106.1 yards per game, 12th in the league) than they have containing the pass (226.8 yards per game, 21st).

The Black and Gold defense is going to have their hands full with Ryan, Turner, White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is second on the team in receptions with 62 and touchdown receptions (5).

While White had a relatively pedestrian game against the Saints (5 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown) in their earlier meeting this season, it was Gonzalez and Turner who victimized the Black and Gold defense. Turner ran for 114 yards on 30 carries (3.8) and a touchdown while the veteran tight end had eight receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown.

It should be noted that Ryan was not picked off once; the same could not be said for number Nine.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for a lot of yards (365) and three touchdowns but was intercepted twice, which tends to happen when your quarterback accounts for too much of your team’s offense.

The Saints rushed for a mere 43 yards in the same game where running back Pierre Thomas was injured. The game wasn’t good for future star running back Chris Ivory, who rushed for all 13 yards on 7 (!) carries and coughed a fumble up to the Falcons’ defense.

Since that most unfortunate performance, the undrafted rookie fill-in has emerged as the team’s leading running back in 2010, going from a last-ditch substitute to a key component in the offense. After straining his hamstring against the Saint Louis Rams and sitting out the entire game at Baltimore last Sunday, it appears the hard running half-back will play in Atlanta on Monday Night Football.

The key for the Saints is to keep their defense off the field by trying to re-establish a balanced offense by reintroducing the running game. Too much of Brees will inevitably lead to too picks.

Defensively, they need to stop Turner from having big runs while not allowing Gonzalez to beat them.

404 v. 504

The Falcons lead the Saints in the series, 45-37 though head coach Sean Payton has only lost the Falcons twice in nine games.

What Say the Numbers

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan has the Falcons as 2-point favorite. I know Atlanta is playing with a lot of momentum and that they’re home and that they’re playing for the first seed, etc., etc., etc. but I think with the Black and Gold’s full complement of running backs playing together and a need to make a statement, I see the Saints winning this game straight-up…and I’ve been more bear than bull on the them this season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Onside Squib: Saints Still Have a Chance at NFC South

Earlier this week, I erroneously stated on this site that with the Saints’ defeat in Baltimore, that the Atlanta Falcons had won the NFC South division by having the tie-breaker over the Saints.

The news I reported of the Black and Gold’s divisional demise apparently was greatly exaggerated with the Ravens loss being virtually an exhibition game in terms of its overall effect on the division.

If the Saints defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome on Monday Night Football on December 27th and defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Superdome the following Sunday AND (key conjunction) the Carolina Panthers, yes the 2-12 Carolina Panthers, beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome on January 2nd, then the Saints would win the NFC South (and hold the first seed and first round playoff bye) by having a better division record than the Falcons. Under this rosiest of scenarios, the Saints would be 5-1 in the NFC South while the Falcons would be 4-2.

Now back to reality.

The Panthers’ two wins came at the expense of the lowly Arizona Cardinals (who embarrassed the Saints earlier in the season) and the San Francisco Forty-Niners, who at 5-9 could still win the NFC Worst…sorry, West.

The Panthers rank 32nd in points scored (AKA LAST), 32nd in yards gained, 32nd in passing yards but a relatively excellent 12th in rushing yards. Their Julius Peppers-less defense is marginally better.

The Falcons are 5th in the league in points scored, 12th in yards gained, 14th in passing yards and 7th on the ground. Defensively they’re 7th in points allowed and average in yards allowed.

Most significantly, the 12-2 Falcons are undefeated this season at home.

If Carolina defeated Atlanta’s starters in the season finale, it might be an even bigger upset than Detroit’s victory over Green Bay. Note that I qualified the aforementioned with the word “starters”. If the Falcons beat the Saints in MNF, then Atlanta wins the division and would likely bench their stars against Carolina, with the Panther first-team taking on the Falcons’ scrubs…and even then I would imagine ATL would be the heavy favorite.

Regardless of whether the Saints win or lose on Monday night, they will still be playing for something on Sunday pending the results of the Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Philadelphia and New York Giants. If the Saints beat Atlanta, they will have locked up not only a wild card spot at a minimum (and keep their chances of winning the division alive until the Panthers-Falcons kickoff), but will have secured the fifth playoff seed in the NFC.

This is relevant in that if the 6th seed wild card team wins their two playoff games (and if the Saints also win theirs), then the NFC Championship Game would be played in the Superdome. Bear in mind that in the NFL, playoff opponents are not determined by bracket but by seed, with the highest seed hosting the lowest seed.

The playoff picture should be clearer after MNF; but then again, I also prematurely awarded Atlanta the NFC South.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Week 15 Review: Pendulum, Ravens D Swings Against the Saints

They can't blame it on the weather.

When the NFL scheduling sprites (won't call them "gods"- any entity that awards a Super Bowl to an open-air stadium in Jersey merit no such moniker), slated the New Orleans Saints to visit Baltimore in mid-December, I figured between the weather and the Ravens' defense that the black birds would be a favorite.

On Sunday it was all defense as a stifled Saints offense couldn't stay on the field while Baltimore running back Ray Rice picked up 153 rushing yards by himself and fellow running back Willis McGahee's 53 yards was more than the Saints' combined rushing yards (a pitiful 27 when factoring in Reggie Bush's -4 overall on the ground).

Who'd have ever thought the Saints would so sorely miss a certain undrafted rookie free agent from Tiffin with both Bush and Pierre Thomas back in action?

The Saints' offense had to rely almost solely on quarterback Drew Brees' arm and his receiving corps' capacity to make catches and his offensive line's ability to protect him. That's never a good situation for the team to find themselves in, especially when neither did very well- though tight end Jimmy Graham caught a pair of touchdowns and "Mr. Reliable" Lance Moore had great hands and toes on an end zone edge catch that was sustained after further review.

With the poor ground game, the Saints had less than 300 yards of total offense.

There were occasions where the Ravens were trying to give the game away, committing ten penalties, but the Saints offense could not take advantage of these "gifts". And then there was one fowl foul, a blantant block in the back, that was not called that helped keep a Baltimore drive alive. Perhaps the refs got tired of throwing flags?

To Brees's credit, things could have been much worse. After spending too much time trying to find open receivers, the Ravens knocked the ball out of his hands twice, with number nine recovering one of the fumbles himself (which is how he ended up with a mangled shoulder in his final game with the San Diego Chargers).

The Saints leader in positive passing records and accolades completed 29 of 46 passing attempts for three touchdowns and a pick while trying to pull off yet another last minute rally. This time the well had done run out of magic.

The Saints travel to number one seed Atlanta for Monday Night Football next week.

Mr. Consistent?

Saints kicker Garrett Hartley made his only field goal attempt of the day, a 47-yarder. Hartley has hit 13 of 15 field goal attempts since being released from "time-out" earlier in the season and has been perfect in his last seven tries.

Pierre Returns to His Roots

Thomas filled in for the injured Courtney Roby as the Saints' kick returner, averaging 22 yards a return. The running back broke in with special teams before succeeding Deuce McAllister as the team's primary tailback.

I-10 Runs Through Nola; the Playoffs Don't

With the Saints' loss in Baltimore, the Atlanta Falcons secured the NFC South division title. And for another season, no team has been able to win that division two years in a row. The best the Saints can hope for now is to win the NFC's top wild card spot (5th seed), which the Black and Gold currently occupy. The Saints currently have a two-game lead over Tampa Bay and Green Bay and a one game lead over the New York Giants before delving into the world of tie-breakers.

The only way the Saints would host a playoff game is if they secure the fifth seed and win the wild card game and divisional game on the road and that the other wild card team also runs the table. In that high;y unlikely scenario, the NFC Championship game would be played in the Superdome.

If the Saints do hold on and end up the fifth seed, they would play the wild card round game in whichever NFC West (worst) team limps out as the winner (dare I use such a term as no team can have a winning record in that professional football ghetto). Unless I am mistaken, Saint Louis, Seattle and amazingly enough 5-9 San Francisco are still in the hunt.

If you paid your playoff ticket invoice by last Friday, consider it a downpayment on next year's season tickets- unless of course there is a lock-out- which is more likely than the Saints hosting a playoff game.

For the Birds

File this one under least relevant statistic, but of the Saints' now four losses on the season, three have been against teams who have birds for mascots. Another reason to hope that the Saints won't have to make a road trip to Philly in the post-season.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Week Fifteen Preview: Pondering the Ravens

In honor of the New Orleans Saints visiting the city most associated with the American literary legend Edgar Allan Poe and the poem from which Baltimore’s franchise takes its name, I have written by game preview as a poem.

Not being much of a romantic, I haven’t even attempted to write a poem since I was forced to do so in grade school with the only guidelines then being a prohibition on the inclusion of the line “roses are red” and any reference to the island of Nantucket.

I have learned from this experience that finding a word that rhymes with “Flacco” is as frustrating as finding one that rhymes with “orange”. I don’t recommend you try doing either. It’ll only make your brain hurt.

I hope you enjoy reading this opus and if any English graduates feel compelled to pen a critique, you are free to send them over whilst on break from stacking books at Barnes & Noble.

Week Fifteen

On an afternoon most dreary, the Saints will face a team most leery

Both clubs fighting for their division, will heighten further the collision

Saints must get a win that day and also need help from birds of gray

Trailing to the men of Steel, the Ravens still nip on their heels

Baltimore, star spangled city, K-ville’s known for being gritty

They eat big crabs caught from the sea, we once had fish before BP

But we have jazz, parade and joy

They’ve got Poe, we’ve got Po-Boys

Beyond the fowl of blackened feather, the Saints must deal with nasty weather

A tougher challenge far from home, without the protection of their dome

Black birds are favored in gambling dives, a spread that stands at two point five

With a chance of snow on this coming Sunday, if I were you, the points I’d lay

The offense has been improved through a series of shrewd moves

Drafting smart and making trades, the Ravens even signed Donte

While Joe Flacco is no Trent Dilfer, for Baltimore he has delivered

And when the Ravens need to pound, Ray Rice can get yards on the ground

The Ravens defense was once most fierce, offensive lines they often’d pierced

It doth not take a learned sleuth, to see that they are long in tooth

Ray Lewis, T. Suggs and Ed Reed, they’re not the men they used to be

On Monday night they gave up scores, the Ravens barely flew out the door

But Who Dats cannot really brag, not the way we’re drawing flags

Twelve men on field was not so nice, just when the game looked to be on ice

Cincy came back, the Bengals roar’d, Saints fans attending were all floored

But saved they were by an early sally, which helped complete the Drew Brees rally

The week before in north Texas, had the Who Dats hurling hexes

A big lead blown in Jerry’s palace, the Saints were blessed to win in Dallas

And when our chances looked like zero, Malcolm Jenkins played the hero

THE Ohio Buckeye chased Williams down, forced a fumble and turn’d things around

And while the temperature is bad, there are reasons to be glad

The time elapsed has brought good health, the running corps- a source of wealth

Pierre is back and Reggie’s healed, on Sunday they’ll be on the field

Another player we won’t lack, our future hall of fame d-back

The Saints o-line must protect Brees, lest they bring us to our knees.

On Colston’s hands our hopes will ride, if number Nine hits him in stride

As playoff hopes burn like embers, too bad this game is in December

The toughest contest on the slate, to be fighting champions is their fate

Brees must avoid forcing throws, a pick-six there’s a mortal blow

Punt returns Bush cannot bumble, and pray that Ivory doesn’t fumble

And not to be an orn’ry nag, Jahri Evans should avoid the flag

And if Hartley’s kicks go wide right, Two Dat chances won’t look so bright

Early setbacks had us down, who’d have thought we’d lose to Browns?

Gainst the Cardindals we did not shine, Max Hall beat us in his first time

And with the loss to ATL, the playoff path looks road trip hell

And if New Orleans Saints drop one more, a repeat as division champs?, nevermore!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Week Fourteen Review: Saints Sacrifice Rams

The New Orleans Saints had one of their best performances of the 2010 regular season in a game where they made big plays on both sides of the ball.

Heavily favored over the NFC West leading Saint Louis Rams, the Black and Gold comfortably exceeded the expectations of the oddsmakers thanks in large part to starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins.

Jenkins, who executed what was the team’s most remarkable play of the year in Dallas, had the best day of his professional career against the Rams with two picks on the day, one returned for 96 yards for a touchdown.

Quarterback Drew Brees had a better day than most other quarterbacks but a little off for him, completing 25 of 40 passes (62.5%) for 221 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Brees also gained some yards with his feet, scrambling for seven.

The Saints offense was well balanced, gaining 132 yards on the ground. Returning running back Pierre Thomas, who had missed much of the season with an injury, received more touches than expected due to running back Chris Ivory going down with a hamstring issue.

Thomas had 39 yards on 12 carries and 29 yards on 4 receptions. Running back Reggie Bush had a decent day picking up 39 rushing yards on 9 carries and 22 receiving yards on 5 catches.

Wide receiver Marques Colston continued to have greater success in the season’s second half. Though the “Quiet Storm” only had 5 catches for 46 yards (one his lower totals in yards this season), the big receiver had two touchdown catches for the second time in the last five games.

Considering that the Rams defense is one of the league’s better squads at sacking quarterbacks, the Saints offensive line played well only allowing Brees to be sacked once.

And while the offense piled up the points, the Saints defense had a great outing after disappointing play in Dallas and Cincinnati. The “d” held the Rams to two field goals and a touchdown. Most significantly they had three takeaways, with Jenkins’s two picks and a forced fumble by strong safety Roman Harper that was recovered by cornerback Jabari Greer.

Harper also had one of the Saints’ three sacks against Saint Louis Rams quarterback and likely rookie of the year Sam Bradford. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the quarterback of the Saints defense, had a sack, a forced fumble and led the team with tackles with seven.

About the only things that didn’t go right for the Saints on the day was a kickoff fumble by return specialist Courtney Roby, who was seriously injured on the play and left the game on a stretcher, and the Atlanta Falcons’ win over the Carolina Panthers.

Atlanta maintained their 1.5 lead over the Saints (when factoring the tie-breakers) with three games left on the schedule. The Saints would have the top wild card seed if the playoffs began today, sending the Black and Gold, ironically enough, to Saint Louis.

Raising the Bar

Brees expanded his franchise records on Sunday increasing his totals for pass completions to 1,934, passing yards to 22,153 and touchdown passes to 150.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Week 14 Preview: Saints Host Bighorn Sheep

On Sunday afternoon the New Orleans Saints will be visited from an old rival from the Black and Gold’s days in the NFC West when the Saint Louis Rams come to town.

Though they’re no longer in the same division, the Saints have faced the Rams more than any other team with the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco Forty Niners excepted, having squared off on 68 occasions, with the Rams winning 38 of them.

One of the biggest victories in Saints history came against the Rams in 2000 when the New Orleans franchise won their first ever playoff game. However the Rams avenged that indignity seven years later when they beat the Saints for their first win of the season after dropping seven in a row.

When the two teams met in 2009, the 1-7 Rams came very close to breaking the Saints’ eight game winning streak, but thanks to a Courtney Roby kick return for a touchdown and a last second deep pass incompletion, the Saints slipped out of the Edward Jones Dome with their undefeated record intact.

The Rams team the Saints will play against on Sunday will be a much better team than last year’s.

With the first overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft finding his stride as quarterback, the Rams no longer need to rely on running back Steven Jackson to carry the offense almost solely on his shoulders.

Quarterback Sam Bradford has completed 60% of his passes, throwing for 2,653 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 picks, which aren’t bad numbers for a first year pro and the reason why Bradford is the leading choice for rookie of the year honors.

And while Jackson is no longer the end all, be all for the Rams offense, he still constitutes a large part of it, handling almost all of the rushing duties and currently 15 yards shy of breaking 1000 ground yards this season. The running back is also a receiving threat, ranking third on his team in catches and fifth in receiving yards.

The Rams’ defense has performed adequately, allowing the 9th fewest points in the league per game (19.8) and 14th fewest yards (333), per capita surrendering more in the air (229.5 average- 19th overall) than on the ground (103.5 average- 14th overall).

One area where the Rams’ defense has performed well this season is going after opposing quarterbacks. The Rams sack total (35) is one shy of the NFL lead. The team is also +5 in turnovers.

The Saints’ offense is starting to increasingly resemble its high-powered former selves…though the unbalanced 2008 version in lieu of the 2009 championship edition. The offense remains pass heavy and the running game ranks 25th on the ground with an average of 98.5 yards per game. Hopefully the rushing numbers will pick up with the much-anticipated return of running back Pierre Thomas, who was injured in week 3, to the line-up.

And while the Saints defense has overall been stingy, they’ve given up 27 and 30 points in their last two games against subpar opponents. We’ll see if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has made the necessary adjustments to prevent a repeat.

One area where the defense has seriously lacked compared to last season is in takeaways. The Saints secondary aren’t the ballhawks they were in 2009; the Saints are tied for second to last in the NFL in picks with 7, only one above last place. And though the Saints defense have forced 20 fumbles (3rd in the league), they’ve only recovered 11 of the loose pigskins.

The Saints enter the contest at a healthy peak with a slim injury report and almost all of their starters ready to play; the Rams’ secondary as been battered with injuries, a gapping weakness that Brees can exploit.

Welcome Back Karney

Former Saints fullback Mike Karney will be making a return visit to the Superdome on Sunday. Karney, who was one of the more popular players on the team in his role as running back Deuce McAllister’s “bodyguard”, signed with the Rams when the Saints released him after the team inked New England Patriots fullback Heath Evans.

And the Numbers?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan has the Saints as a 9.5 favorite over the Rams. With injuries to Rams secondary and Brees starting to connect on the longball, a blow out is not out of the question. However, the Saints have won their last two games by four points or less. Though those games were on the road, the Saints have played better away from the Superdome than they have inside of it. The Saints have not beaten the Rams by 10 points or more since 1998 and the Black and Gold have a habit of playing to the level of their competition. Also bear in mind that the Rams are playing for their division. I’d take the 9.5 as a reaction to the defense’s inability to close out games as of late.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Week Thirteen Review: We Dey

After almost being defeated by their own “twelfth man”, the New Orleans Saints rallied back from a late deficit after leading most of the game to defeat the host Cincinnati Bengals along the banks of the Ohio River.

Though the snowstorm many Saints fans feared didn’t materialize, the weather conditions were hardly typical for the dome-based Black and Gold. The temperature hovered in the low thirties and there was light sleet throughout the contest.

With the victory, the Saints have extended their current winning streak to five and have given head coach Sean Payton his first consecutive winning seasons. In another accomplishment worth noting, quarterback Drew Brees had a franchise-record setting day, surpassing Archie Manning (21,734) for most passing yards in a Saints uniform.

Brees threw for 313 yards, completing 24 of 29 passes (82.8%) with two touchdowns and an interception.

Brees already holds the franchise records in pass completions and passing touchdowns but trails Manning’s record for attempts, 3,335.

Kicker Garrett Hartley had a mixed day, perfect as a field goal and extra point kicker but lacking on the kickoff. One of his kickoffs went out of bounds, resulting in a penalty while his other kickoffs were well short of the end zone and were returned by the Bengals for good field position.

Undrafted free agent running back Chris Ivory didn’t help injured running back Pierre Thomas’s bargaining position for a better contract. Tiffin’s finest had another outstanding performance, rushing for 117 yards on 15 attempts and two touchdowns, including one for 55 yards. Ivory did cough the ball up once though his fumble was recovered by tight end David Tomas.

Wide receiver Robert Meachem reminded everyone the wisdom of General Manager Mickey Loomis’s decision to pick him in the first round of the 2007 draft. Though Meachem only had three receptions, the wide receiver racked up 106 yards and a touchdown on the day.

With the Bengals offense scoring 30 points, it could be said the Saints defense, the strong point of the team for most of the 2010 season, was bailed out by the offense. The Bengals were forced to punt only twice. However the defense did make some good plays, though they didn’t have any takeaways in the contest. The Saints sacked Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer three times and allowed the Bengals to convert only 5 of their 14 third downs. They also forced the Bengals to have to settle for field goals

By far the ugliest moment for the Saints was drawing a penalty for having twelve men on the field when the Bengals were punting in the fourth quarter while sitting on an eight point lead. The inexcusable penalty kept the Cincinnati drive alive as they scored a touchdown and succeeded with their two-point attempt to tie the game up at 27 all.

The Bengals also had their “messy” moments. In the first quarter a running into the punter penalty set the Saints up for a Hartley 48-yard field goal. And then there was the costliest “bungle” losing a game of fourth and two chicken on the Cincinnati seven yard line that set up a Brees to Marques Colston touchdown pass on the next play.


It seems the wide receiver formerly known as Chad Johnson has been more prolific on Twitter than he has been on the field. After engaging in smack talk that referenced a recently gunned down New Orleans rapper via Twitter, #85 had five receptions for “nueve siete” yards and “cero” touchdowns.

No Comment?

The Onside Kick had a chance to shout a question to punter Tom Morstead while he was boarding the team bus concerning why he has been relieved of kick-off duties. The fan friendly player turned around, gave a shrug of the shoulders and continued walking to team bus.

A Little Help? Please?

The Saints will go into week fourteen once again staring at black and red tailfeathers. The Atlanta Falcons overcame a late Tampa Bay Buccaneer lead to stay ahead of the Saints in the NFC South by a game (and a half when factoring ATL’s tie-breaker advantage).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Week Thirteen Preview: Saints Hope to Not Bungle Playoff Chances in Cincy

The New Orleans Saints begin the final and toughest part of their schedule when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

While the Bengals’ record is 2-9, tied with the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills for second worst in the NFL, Cincinnati lost some close ones, including five games by a touchdown or less.

The Bengals have a talented quarterback in Carson Palmer, who has thrown for 2,760 yards and 19 touchdowns. But despite having two outstanding wide receivers on the Bengals roster, Palmer has struggled, with a completion rate of 59.5% (the second lowest in the USC standout’s professional career) and having been intercepted 15 times.

Free agent wide out Terrell Owens is tied for fourth in total receptions (65), third in receiving yards (914) and eighth in touchdowns with eight. Fellow receiver Chad Ocho Cinco (or however he runs his adopted surname together) has not shared in TO’s success.

Number eighty-five is tied at 33rd in receiving touchdowns (4), 26th in receiving yards (628) and 20th in receptions with 54. In other words, he’s having an “ocho stinko” 2010 compared to the other seasons where he played in most of the games on the schedule.

The Bengals’ air attack ranks 11th in the NFL, averaging 237.5 passing yards a game but are 25th in rushing with an average of 92 ground yards, with an overwhelming majority coming from running back Cedric Benson. In terms of scoring, the “Who Deys” are 21st with an average of 20.5 points per game while the “Who Dat’ 6th ranked defense has been surrendering 17.9 points per game.

Gregg Williams’s secondary are going to have their hands full with Owens and #85, though the Saints defense has had some recent success with the former. When the Black and Gold played the Buffalo Bills last season, Owens, who was playing for his fourth team thus far did not make a single reception, snapping a 185 game-catch streak that began in 1996.

The Saints’ last meeting with the Bengals’ “second” or “dos” receiver during the 2006 season did not go so well. Playing under his birth name Chad Johnson, the wide receiver burned the Black and Gold secondary for six receptions for 190 yards and three touchdowns, the longest being for sixty yards. The former Mr. Johnson had his season best yards per catch game in the Superdome, averaging 31.7.

The good news for the Saints is that the team is the healthiest it has been since the beginning of the season. The recent injury reports contained only three names- with tight end Jeremy Shockey and free safety Darren Sharper not appearing on the dubious list. The Saints are most complete at the very point of the schedule where the heaviest lifting is to be done if they want a shot at repeating as NFC South Champions or making the playoffs.

Historically, the Saints have enjoyed relative success against the Bengals. As of 1994, Cincinnati was one of the few teams New Orleans had a winning series record against. 1994 was also the last time the Saints beat them. Since then, the Black and Gold has dropped three in a row. The most infamous of those was on a road trip there in 2002, when the Bengals were plain awful, so much so that the sports page of the Times-Picayune mocked them in a story referring to them as the “Bungles” and featured a picture of a black and orange striped skunk.

The Bengals were 1-13 with their lone win being against the expansion Houston Texans while then-coach Jim Haslett’s Saints were 9-5 and needed only a single win in their remaining two games to make it to the playoffs. In my mind that game was the beginning of the end of Haslett’s tenure in New Orleans after giving the Bengals their second win of the season with a 20-13 score, courtesy of the Bengals’ stout run defense. The Bengals currently lead the series 6-5.

The Oddsmaker v. the Scheduling Fairies/Weather Gods

Danny Sheridan has the Saints as a 6.5 point favorite over the Bengals. The dome-oriented Saints have not had a lot of success in cold weather, especially under coach Sean Payton. Also quarterback Drew Brees had trouble passing the ball in Candlestick Park earlier this season, meaning the Saints will have to get yards on the ground. With running backs Reggie Bush back on the field and Pierre Thomas continuing to make progress in his own recovery, the Saints should have all of their primary ground weapons suited up and ready to go.

If this game would have been played in September or October in Cincinnati, I would feel better about the Saints’ chances. But it’s not. When the 2010 schedule was released, it looked as if the league was going to make a point of making a “Two Dat” more of a challenge.

Maybe I’m still haunted by the Saints’ 2002 disastrous trip to Cincinnati, concerned about weather conditions (The Weather Channel is currently projecting a high of 37 degrees with snow showers on game day), shaken from the last three road trips to frigid Soldier Field and a kicking game that’s questionable in the climate controlled confines of the Superdome, but I can see the Bengals winning this one. Take the elements and the points