After watching the Philadelphia Eagles struggle mightily against the Oakland Raiders last night on Monday Night Football, the New Orleans Saints and their fans are now realizing something that they likely already knew:
Which is that despite having to play at least one and probably two games on the road in the upcoming NFC Playoffs, their path to making it to the Super Bowl won't be nearly as hard as it seemed to be just a few short weeks ago.
Regardless of whether the (11-4) Saints end up finishing as NFC South division champions or enter into the post-season as only a Wild-Card following this upcoming Sunday's final regular season game at Tampa Bay, they have already proven throughout the season that they are indeed one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC and the entire League.
The Saints' at times-dominant 23-13 win this past Sunday against their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons certainly served as reassurance of that fact.
And now with only 5 days left until the curtain finally falls on the National Football League's 97th regular season of its history, a VALID argument can be made that no NFC team among the 6 Playoff participants from the conference appear to be as ready and well-prepared to make a hard, legitimate run at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, than the Saints are.
New Orleans' annually high-powered offense still ranks among the NFL's best (currently #2 overall behind New England), but the biggest difference between this year's Saints team and the one we saw finish (7-9) for the past 3 seasons clearly has been a combination of an improved defense along with the addition of a top-notch running game.
After finishing 27th overall last year and 31st and 32nd overall in the two seasons prior to that, the Saints defense through 15 games this season is currently ranked 15th.
And perhaps more importantly? Despite missing several key contributors (defensive end Alex Okafor, linebacker A.J. Klein, and safety Kenny Vaccaro) for the reminder of the season, the Saints defense has been playing its best in "crunch time" during the month of December.
As our friend and NFL Draft / football analyst John Sigler of Canal Street Chronicles observed last night: the Saints defense is playing "Playoff football" in December; allowing only 18 points per game, 311 yards per game, giving up only 34% on third downs, and have recorded 9 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and 6 interceptions.
#Saints defense in 4 games in December:
•18 points/game allowed
•311 yards/game allowed
•34% on third down
•5 forced fumbles
that’s playoff football, y’all
— Playoff Team Fan (@john_siglerrr) December 26, 2017
Unquestionably, the biggest reason why the Saints find themselves in the position they're currently in is because of the very notable improvement on the defensive side of the football.
But it can't be understated enough, of how DIFFERENT this Saints team is with the addition of a legitimate and at-times dominant running game to its offense.
Not only do the Saints already have a future Hall of Fame QB in place with 17-year veteran QB Drew Brees, but now this season that have not one but TWO Pro Bowl running backs (veteran Mark Ingram and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara) to keep the offense balanced and to continually keep opposing defenses "back on their heels" .
Teams currently face the not-so-great option of having to "pick their poison": which is to either attempt stacking the box in a concerted effort to stop the Saints running attack, only to get burned by Brees in the air; or they can play zone and attempt to limit the damage being done by the passing game, only to have either Ingram or Kamara RUN OVER you.
This year's 2017 Saints team CLEARLY is not the same one from the past three seasons. They are LEGITIMATE championship contenders.
But now the question becomes:
How do the Saints "stack up" against the other teams that are standing in their way of getting to another Super Bowl?
After last night's struggles by #1 seed Philadelphia last night, it has to be said that the Saints' path of making it to the Super Bowl doesn't appear to be too difficult to navigate or eventually overcome.
It was evident that after last night, (13-2) Philadelphia just isn't the same team with League MVP candidate Carson Wentz no longer leading the way. It was only because of their #5th ranked defense, that they were able to pull away from the Raiders at the end.
However, the Eagles aren't the only team that New Orleans will have to concern itself with in the upcoming next few weeks.
Here's how Saints News Network sees the Black and Gold stacking up against each one of the other NFC Playoff teams at the moment, and how we rate the Saints' chances of beating each one..........
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-3)
The Vikings are the #2 seed, but their home-field advantage seems to be much more stronger than Philadelphia's is; and the Saints' season-opening 29-19 loss to Minnesota back in Week #1 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, is a testament to that fact.
Nevertheless despite their dominant defense and efficient offense, the Vikings still have a couple of scratches and dents on their purple and yellow Corvette.
Without a doubt, Minnesota's defense is much better than the Saints defense, but if a potential Divisional Playoff or NFC Championship Game comes down to a "shootout"?
There's no one in their right mind taking Vikings QB Case Keenum over Drew Brees.
The Vikings are THE biggest obstacle to the Saints getting to the Super Bowl, but not impossible to beat by any means. But the Saints will have to bring their "A-Game" to win.
CHANCES OF WINNING: 50%
LOS ANGELES RAMS (11-4)
Why do we have the Rams ranked THIS high? A few reasons.
Obviously, the first reason is that Los Angeles beat New Orleans by a score of 26-20 at the Los Angeles Coliseum back in Week #12, and has already proven that they can beat the Saints with all things being equal (although to be completely "fair", the Saints were missing both starting CB's Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley in that contest).
More importantly and Reason #2: Todd Gurley.
Gurley is the best RB in Pro Football right now, and a serious threat to win League MVP.
He's on pace to finish with 2,233 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, and holds a seven-touchdown lead over every other player in the league, with no other running back, wide receiver or tight end topping 12 scores.
The Saints "limited" Gurley to 74 yards rushing and 54 yards receiving in their first meeting a few weeks ago, but Gurley since that time has EXPLODED — as evidenced this past Sunday by his 276 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns to lift the Rams to a NFC West division-clinching win over the Titans.
That's not all, either.
The Rams boast a high-powered passing attack (led by QB Jared Goff) that the Saints defense had some difficult moments against in their Week #12 match-up, and their defense (coached by defensive coordinator / "guru" Wade Phillips) is capable of shutting down an opponent (although they did struggle somewhat against Kamara that day).
The bottom line is that the Saints and the Rams are VERY EVENLY-MATCHED teams, and it's a toss-up as to who would win in the Playoffs.
As we saw back in Week #12: anything less than their BEST effort, could cost the Saints a win in the most crucial of times.
CHANCES OF WINNING: 55%
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (13-2)
There's really nothing else to add to what we said about the Eagles earlier in this article.
They probably are THE SHAKIEST #1 Playoff seed in NFL history at the moment.
And of it wasn't for their defense in the past few weeks, they wouldn't even be hosting a Playoff game to begin with.
When Carson Wentz was in the line-up, they were a legitimate threat to beat ANYBODY. But with Nick Foles running the show, they're lucky if they can even win a single Playoff game.
The only thing that could stop the Saints against them besides their defense, is if the Philadelphia-area weather that day hampers the field conditions and makes it a slippery surface for Kamara and company.
Otherwise, as they say in Philly: "fu-ge-da-bout-it."
CHANCES OF WINNING: 60%
CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-4)
It goes without saying that the Saints match-up very well against the Panthers, and that's been proven already since they've beaten Carolina both times this season.
The hardest part about facing Carolina in the Playoffs (and as of this very moment it appears that they will be the first team that the Saints will face in the Wild Card round at the Superdome on the weekend of January 6th-7th) is that it's usually hard in the NFL to beat a team THREE TIMES in the same season.
Otherwise the Saints seem to have the slight advantage, especially on offense; since they appear to be much more consistent than the "up-and-down" Panthers and QB Cam Newton — who depending on which day of the week it is, you never actually know what you're going to get (like that unopened Christmas gift that was left under the tree from Aunt Edna).
If the Saints get to face them at home in the Superdome, the only thing preventing the Saints from winning would be if they came out and performed horribly, or if they turned the ball over a bunch of times.
CHANCES OF WINNING: 65%
ATLANTA FALCONS (9-6) *(IF THEY GET IN)*
As you're probably well aware: the Falcons NEED to either beat the Panthers in Atlanta this Sunday or have the Seattle Seahawks lose to the Arizona Cardinals, just to even MAKE it to the Playoffs to begin with.
If neither happens, then the Falcons would join the inglorious list of NFL teams that missed the post-season after appearing in the Super Bowl the previous year.
Though it might seem a bit of a "long shot" at the moment, there is a chance that the Saints could face the Falcons once again in the Playoffs, and possibly even in that first Playoff game depending on how things play out this coming weekend in the regular season finale for all of the involved teams.
And given how the Saints seemingly outplayed the Falcons in BOTH of their games despite only winning the 2nd game of the two the other day, you'd have to believe the Saints would be a strong favorite to vanquish their hated arch-rivals one more time.
CHANCES OF WINNING: 65%
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-6) *(IF THEY GET IN)*
Seattle is still "alive and well" and remains in the NFC Playoff chase, and is literally THE LAST TEAM standing in the conference with a shot at the post-season.
The situation for Seattle is a bit different than Atlanta's is however: in that they NEED to win, AND have the Falcons lose to Carolina in order to make it into the Playoffs — since the Falcons defeated the Seahawks head-to-head back in Week #11 by a score of 34-31.
So there's a better than average chance that the Saints won't even face the Seahawks.
It's a well-known fact that the Seahawks are Playoff-tested, and have been to 2 Super Bowls in recent years (winning one in 2013); so they're a team capable of getting "hot" and making a run at another championship.
But with their defense completely battered, bruised, and beaten up to a pulp, it's forced QB Russell Wilson to practically carry the entire Seahawks team on his back; which wouldn't bode well for them against a very opportunistic Saints defense at home in the Superdome, in any potential Wild-Card match-up............