I haven’t written anything about the NFL or the Saints since the season started. This is simply because the first quarter of the season went horrendously, horribly wrong and, though they’ve righted the ship somewhat, it felt odd to talk about playoff chances and potential while the team was several games under .500. (And talking about the 2013 Draft in September 2012 was just drink-inducing). That excuse doesn’t exist now. So yay!
Before I say anything though, two things should be stressed. One, the team has shown a lot of mettle and fortitude to not let the start of the season bring them down. Obviously, I and just about everyone else underestimated the damage done by the summer of the Bounty Scandal. (I will forever refuse to say the word “Bountygate”). The absence of Sean Payton for the entire season and of Joe Vitt for those first six games appears to have thrown a massive monkey wrench into the mechanisms of the team. I will never place any blame on Aaron Kromer or Steve Spagnuolo since they were, in effect, being told to make chicken salad out of a lot of chicken poop.
Secondly, even though I remain bullish on the Saints’ chances, I won’t say they will make the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done in the remaining six weeks of the season and a lot of ground to make up to reach the playoffs. Losses against the Chiefs and Panthers appear even worse in light of the spot the Saints find themselves in. That said, the idea of reaching the playoffs, which at one point appeared out of reach, can now be entertained. So let’s entertain it!
If the playoffs started tonight, the Saints would be watching them at home as the 3rd team in the NFC South and the 9th team in the NFC. Currently, the NFC looks something like this.
- Atlanta Falcons 9-1
- San Francisco 49ers 7-2-1
- Green Bay Packers 7-3
- New York Giants 6-4
- Chicago Bears 7-3
- Seattle Seahawks 6-4
- Tampa Bay Bucs 6-4
- Minnesota Vikings 6-4
- New Orleans Saints 5-5
- Dallas Cowboys 5-5
We’ll make three assumptions before we get started: First, that the top 5 spots in the NFC are spoken for. The Packers and Bears will fight for the top spot in the NFC North but they’ll both likely make it. That means the only spot up for grabs is the 6th seed. Secondly, that the teams just below .500 – Washington, Detroit and Arizona – will not be able to enter into the playoffs equation. In order to even consider it, one of those teams would have to win out from this point. And that’s because of our third assumption: that it’s going to take at least 10 wins to guarantee yourself a shot at that 6th seed spot.
All that said, let’s take a look at the chances of each of the teams battling for that last spot.
Seattle: Arguably in the best spot since they are sitting in the last chair available. Also, of the teams left fighting for it, they have the easiest schedule on paper. They have games against Miami, Arizona, Buffalo and St Louis — all teams under .500. Their toughest games are a trip to Chicago – the Seahawks’ D versus the Bears’ O-line? – and a home game against the Niners. Even if you consider those games losses, that’s a 4-2 record and the magic 10-win mark reached. They are going to lean strongly on their 3rd-ranked defense to keep them in and win them games. Their 26th-ranked offense will have to put up just enough points to let the D do their work though.
Tampa Bay: They have to face Atlanta twice, travel to Denver and New Orleans and face Philly and St Louis. The good thing for them is that Josh Freeman and their offense has risen to become a real threat to any opponent they face – 10th in the NFL. Four wins out of their last five games and in all of them, they never scored less than 27 (this past week against Carolina). The bad news? Their defense is all the way down to 29th-ranked – even while averaging almost 1 turnover per game. Besides holding the lowly Chiefs to just 10 points, every other team scores in bunches against Tampa. They’ll have to score a lot to stay with the other contending teams.
Minnesota: Arguably the toughest schedule of the bunch goes to the Vikings. They have to face Green Bay and Chicago twice while those two teams battle it out for the division and also travel to Houston to face the Texans. Somewhere in there is a reprieve by facing St Louis too. Oh wait, it’s in St Louis. And in the midst of all that, Christian Ponder has fallen back to Earth and they’re relying more and more on Adrian Peterson. But to run him into the teeth of the Bears and Texans a year after he just got back from major reconstructive surgery isn’t a recipe for success.
New Orleans: For the Saints, it’s unrealistic to expect a massive collapse by the Falcons. So it all comes down to winning as many games from San Francisco, Atlanta, the Giants, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Carolina. Drew Brees and his 5th-ranked offense are going to be shouldering the heavy load as, on paper, the Saints’ D remains the worst in the NFL. However, signs from the last three games – 11 sacks, 4 INTs – point to a defense that’s getting back to its “bend-don’t-break” mentality of its best years. Can they stop with the penalties though – averaging almost 7 penalties a game for 60 ypp this year.
Dallas: Three of their games are against playoff contenders – New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The other three are against long-time rivals Philadelphia and Washington – with two games against the Redskins. It’s tough to say what Dallas team will show up any Sunday though. On paper, the Cowboys are the most balanced team on this list – #11-ranked offense, #7-ranked defense. Consistency is a question though. Can Dez Bryant continue his good run with Tony Romo? Can they also stop turning the ball over (ranking 28th in TOs in 2012)?
So what will it take for the Saints to make the playoffs? They’ll need five wins out of the next six to get them to that 10-6 spot. At the same time, that loss cannot come against either Dallas or Tampa Bay. If they are going to drop one game, either this week against the Niners or when they travel to face the Giants would be the least damaging. In order to do that, they’ll have to hope that the newly-rejuvenated running attack of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory, Pierce Thomas and the returning Darren Sproles continues keeping defenses honest and away from Drew Brees long enough for him to find Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham, et al. And the defense has to continue to rise to the occasion – surrender yards, but not points.
They’ll also need for Seattle to get snake bit by at least one of those mediocre-to-poor teams they’ll face – my money would be on their 12/16 game in Buffalo against the Bills given that the cross-continental trips are always so difficult to handle – while also losing to San Francisco and Chicago. They’ll need for Minnesota to continue to drop in spite of Purple Jesus’ form. They’ll need Dallas to continue to tease and disappoint. And they’ll need Atlanta and Denver to help them out by pounding the Bucs.
So lot’s still to play for in 2012. Here we go! Who Dat!