In their last three regular seasons, the New Orleans Saints have failed to achieve the standard by which all NFL teams live by: to have a winning season and make the Playoffs.
The last time that the Saints did either, was in 2013; when the Saints -- thanks in part to a 5-0 start to the season that year -- finished 11-5, earned a NFC Wild Card berth, and advanced to the Divisional Round before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, on a cold and rainy afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.
Since that loss to the Seahawks on January 11, 2014, the Saints have "flat lined", and have finished with a 7-9 record for 3 straight seasons while missing the NFL Playoffs in all 3 of those same years.
There are any number of culprits, ranging in scope from an ungodly amount of injuries that literally crippled the team's secondary, to "bad starts" to the season which have included 1-4 starts in both 2014 and 2015, and an 0-3 start to last year in 2016.
However, the #1 culprit -- the one thing that has stood out time and time again in the past 3 years -- beyond any shadow of a doubt: the overall quality of play, by the team's defense.
In a few words, the performance of the Saints defense over the past 3 seasons has been nothing short of an outright embarrassment.
The Saints offense is annually ranked within the Top 5 offenses of the NFL, but offense has never been a problem for the New Orleans Saints under head coach Sean Payton and with Drew Brees at QB.
If there's any one singular thing that can be blamed for the Saints' failures to achieve the NFL standard -- have a winning season and make the NFL Playoffs (and hopefully have a shot at winning the Super Bowl) each year -- it's been the near-garbage caliber level of play, from the team's defense.
It's the very same Saints defensive unit that finished ranked #26 out of 32 NFL teams last year in 2016; and has finished either 31st or dead last in 3 of the 4 seasons (2012, 2014, and 2015) prior to that.
So why then, should we expect anything different when the Saints defense takes the field in 13 days from now at Minneapolis, Minnesota against the Vikings on ESPN Monday Night Football?
Well, that's where the beginning of the reasoning for our final prediction of the New Orleans Saints 2017 NFL regular season begins......
SAINTS NEWS NETWORK'S PREDICTION FOR THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 2017 SEASON
While the NFL Pre-Season should always be taken with a "grain of salt", at this point of the 2017 calendar year for the Saints, one thing has clearly and unequivocally become evident: the team's defense is VERY MUCH improved.
In fact, you could dare say that it might even be considered a good one.
The Saints defense in 3 Pre-Season games are ranked #2 overall (yielding only 238.7 yards per game), and lead the League in sacks (16), while ranking 2nd overall in PBU's / pass break-ups (24) and scoring defense (13.3 points per game).
Now while those numbers don't "count" for anything since it's only the Pre-Season and not yet the NFL regular season, they still matter because they're indicative of the strides that the Saints have made defensively this off-season, especially with the additions they made to the unit through the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Saints have no less than 3 players from this year's Draft class -- top pick CB Marshon Lattimore, 2nd Round pick free safety Marcus Williams, and linebacker Alex Anzalone -- who appear to be potential immediate starters.
Meanwhile 2 other players -- 3rd Round pick defensive end Trey Hendrickson and 6th Round pick defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad -- could see enough action to make significant contributions.
When you add in the fact that their other draft picks who are offensive players -- 1st Round pick left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and 3rd Round pick RB Alvin Kamara -- are both expected to start when the team opens the season at Minnesota, it makes this year's 2017 Saints Draft class potentially one of the best if not THE BEST Saints Draft class ever, throughout the team's entire 51-year history.
You have to go all the way back to the Saints 1981 Draft under then-head coach Bum Phillips, to find a Saints draft class as good as this year's class has the potential to be.
The 1981 Saints Draft is generally regarded by long-time Saints writers / observers such as myself, as the team's greatest Draft class; which yielded several immediate starters including Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson, running back George Rogers, strong safety Russell Gary, defensive tackle Frank Warren, defensive tackle Jim Wilks, tight end Hoby Brenner, offensive guard Louis Oubre, nose tackle Jerry Boyarsky, cornerback Johnnie Poe, and fullback Hokie Gajun.
In his brilliantly-written article yesterday (click HERE to read), New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill made the observation that the young and on-the-rise Saints defense has the potential to get around the whole field and get there quickly, a necessity in today’s NFL.
“I think we’ve drafted people that want to come in and play nasty, play physical, and that leads to everyone looking faster on the field,” Saints veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro told Underhill in an one-on-one interview.
“Most of the time, playing faster is people playing with better effort.”
That effort has become clear in the Pre-Season, and if it carries over to the regular season, there's no reason to think that the Saints defense -- the team's clear and undisputed biggest weakness of the past 3 NFL seasons -- could be "turning the corner" enough, to actually become one of the team's strengths.
It's the reason why I believe that when you put a new and improved Saints defense next to a perennial Top 5 offense that's also gotten better in the running game; that this team will be improved overall enough to contend for a Wild Card Playoff spot in the NFC.
The one thing that will be critical to the Saints's success: getting off to a "good start".
It can't be overstated enough how starting off the season "on the right foot" is conducive to a team's season-long success, given the amount of confidence that it breeds among players individually, and a team as a whole.
They absolutely cannot afford to start off at 1-4 (as it was noted above) like they did in both 2014 and 2015, or the 0-3 hole that they found themselves in last year.
But one thing it will not be, is "easy".
In the Saints' first 6 games alone, the new and improved defense will face no less than 3 former MVP quarterbacks – Patriots QB Tom Brady (Week #2), Panthers QB Cam Newton (Week #3) and Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers (Week #6).
That's not even counting Lions QB Matthew Stafford, who just yesterday signed a contract extension making him the highest paid player in NFL history, that included a $50 million signing bonus and $92 million guaranteed -- the "going rate" for one of the League's most talented and prolific passers.
It won't be a Sunday Picnic at Grandma's house by any stretch of the imagination, but if the Saints can at the very least get a "split" of those first 6 games (3-3), then you have to believe that a slightly "softer" portion in the 2nd half of their schedule that only features NFC South division rivals Atlanta (twice) and Tampa Bay as potentially tough games, will give them an opportunity to contend for the Playoffs.
Another factor to consider: winning "close" games.
The Saints lost 3 games last year that should have been wins instead of losses, had there not been some crazy or unexpected circumstances (like a blocked extra point return) during the end of the game's final minute, go against them.
Losses to the Raiders (35-34, Week #1), Giants (16-13, Week #2), and the Broncos (25-23, Week #10) all occurred in the game's final minute; where if things would have went in the Saints' favor instead of against them, they could have finished 10-6.
And that would have been with half the secondary out hurt with injuries, and a roster (at least on defense) that's nowhere near the same level of this year's obvious talent upgrade.
Which makes the optimism shared by many fans in the past few weeks after the defense's notable Pre-Season performance, all the more valid.
Call it faith, call it hope --- call it whatever the hell that you want.
But something FEELS DIFFERENT about this year's Saints team, than the one that we've seen the past 3 years.
Many people throughout the off-season have labeled the 2017 season for the Saints as a "make or break" season, although the organization and team brass (Payton and General Manger Mickey Loomis) deny that they feel any additional pressure or any sense of urgency to approach this year any differently than they have in years past.
And to that, I say: BULLSH*T.
This team knows that there are huge expectations for them to have a winning season this year, and so far they're playing like it.
If they carry this over into the regular season, then there's no reason to expect otherwise -- barring injuries or bad luck -- that they can't win 10 games.
FINAL PREDICTION FOR THE 2017 SAINTS REGULAR SEASON:
10-6, NFC Wild Card Playoff participant