At this most wonderful time of the year, it's a long-held tradition that you'll become happier by giving a gift at Christmas, rather than receiving one. This afternoon at a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Superdome in downtown New Orleans, the NFL New Orleans Saints franchise gave its fans the greatest gift possible with 1 game remaining in the 2017 regular season: a return back to the NFL Playoffs after nearly a 4 year absence.
However, the gift-giving didn't stop there.
The Saints also dominated their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons for a majority of the contest, in a 23-13 victory that was nowhere near as close as the final score indicated.
The butt-whipping inflicted upon the despised Dirty Birds also gave Saints fans another gift:
A healthy dose of "vengeance" for the way that the Saints lost to the Falcons 2 weeks ago, in a game that the Who Dat Nation still believes even now was unjustly taken from them by a combination of poor NFL officiating; and an unseen and unnamed group of conspirators seeking to do the team harm in some type of unscrupulous manner.
Be that as it may (or may not), there is actually an even greater gift that the Saints gave their fans today besides a Playoff berth and "payback" for the loss at Atlanta 2 weeks ago — an acknowledgement through their mostly outstanding performance, that they are in fact a team perfectly capable of winning the Super Bowl.
Not next year or the year after that, mind you; but THIS year.
Well, February 4th, 2018 to be exact; which is the day in approximately a month and a half from now, when Super Bowl LII is held at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Of course, Saints fans will quickly tell you that they've known for months now that their Black and Gold-clad heroes have been playing at a level reserved for the NFL's very best teams.
They'll also be quick to tell you that the team's performance this year is the result of perseverance and hard work, along with a tremendous stroke of good fortune that has occurred thanks to the organization's selection of a "Grand Slam" 2017 Draft Class — a collection of young talent that some experts say might even be the best Draft for any NFL team in this entire century, thus far.
But for the doubters and "naysayers" who haven't been completely sold on the Saints' success this year, now even they are starting to come around.
And it was no less than former Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzales himself today; who said on FOX Sports' NFL coverage earlier that because of the way the Saints play defense this year, he believes New Orleans is a team fully capable of "going to and winning an NFC Championship Game".
Gonzales wasn't alone in his assessment, either.
Commentators and analysts from a variety of other networks that cover the NFL were complimentary of the Saints' impressive performance against the Falcons today, and rightly so.
And it's important to note that Gonzales' assessment is spot-on accurate, in that if this Saints team is in fact a legitimate threat to "win it all", then it will be the team's defense — and NOT its #1 ranked offense — that could potentially propel them to such an accomplishment.
Clearly, the Saints defense can't possibly play much better than it did Sunday.
In his post game press conference, Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters that "our defense was magnificent".
Talk about an understatement.
Sean Payton: "Our defense was magnificent." pic.twitter.com/thQ4oEzKr0
— John Hendrix (@JohnJHendrix) December 24, 2017
A unit that just this past week lost 2 of its top performers for the rest of the season in linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro, still managed to give one of its best efforts of the entire season.
Minus the presence of Klein and Vaccaro, the young defense still managed to sack Falcons QB Matt Ryan twice and forced two critical turnovers (one which bounced off of rookie Marshon Lattimore's rear end for an improbable interception) that ended up being the "difference-makers" in the end.
Additionally, they also held Atlanta to 1 out of 8 on third-down conversion attempts, and had a decisive goal-line stand in the 4th quarter with a "stuff" of RB Devonta Freeman.
When you take into consideration that this was an Atlanta team just 10 and a half months removed from a Super Bowl themselves and were seeking to clinch their own spot in the Playoffs, it makes the Saints' performance today just all that more impressive.
So now as the NFL makes its yearly elimination process from 32 teams down to the Final 12, go ahead and take a wild guess who's going to be starring in the brand new show called "The Road to Super Bowl LII": you got it, your New Orleans Saints.
Yes, winning AT Philadelphia against the Eagles or AT Minneapolis against the Vikings in the middle of January (or perhaps even in Los Angeles against the Rams) will be tough, but impossible?
Nah, not by any stretch.
Easy it won't be, but today proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that when they NEEDED to win the absolute 'biggest' of games, that this young Saints team is indeed "up to the task".
Yes — they are LEGITIMATE championship contenders.
For Saints fans, it's the greatest gift that they could ever receive this Christmas.
Not only is their team finally going back to the NFL Playoffs, but they're actually good enough to win games in them.
And maybe — just maybe — they're good enough to win the biggest Playoff game of them all......