You don't have to be a life-long fan of the New Orleans Saints to understand just how disappointing their heart-breaking last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Divisional Playoffs was a few months ago; for fans of the team living in South Louisiana itself, and extending outward to "Who Dats" all across the entire football world.
The 1983 season finale against the Rams in the Superdome or the eerily similar 2011 Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco to the 49ers would probably rank equally as heart-breaking for many followers of the team over the years, but clearly the disappointment that Saints fans felt on January 14th of this year is still very fresh on the minds of the team's most devoted and faithfully loyal of ardent supporters, especially with it being the most recent.
So, it goes without saying if a large portion of them haven't given a whole lot of thought to where the team ranks currently among the Super Bowl contenders for the League crown in 2018, which will be determined in Super Bowl LIII (53) in Atlanta, Georgia on February 3rd, 2019.
But that's okay, because it's our job here at the Saints News Network, to think about such things.
With that in mind, how exactly does New Orleans "stack up" against the other teams that will be considered among the favorites to make a run at the Big Game in February, at the home of the Saints' hated arch-rivals (Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, home of the Falcons)?
This morning before you head to work or grab that sausage and egg biscuit to go with your hot cup of coffee, here's how we see the NFC Playoff race / top Super Bowl contenders in the conference shaping up for the upcoming 2018 NFL season, with a few thoughts on each one followed by some closing thoughts on the Saints themselves.
And we start with the defending champions....
#1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The Eagles won the Super Bowl last season despite losing their starting QB Carson Wentz, who was lost for the remainder of the season and the Playoffs with a knee injury late in then year.
Now they should have a fully-recovered Wentz back at the helm of one of the League's most feared offensive schemes under head coach Doug Pederson; and backed by a defense whose 2nd-string unit is actually better than a handful of some NFL teams' starting units.
The Eagles added South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert in the Draft, which should make their offense just all the more dangerous; and while many Saints fans feel that the Eagles are a "beatable team", you still have to respect the defending champions until they're not actually the champions anymore. That won't be for another 7 and a half more months from now, at the earliest.
#2. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Now of course Saints fans won't want to think about this given how the team lost to the Vikings in that heart-breaking playoff game only a few months ago, but the Vikings improved their team in the off-season by adding the #1 Free Agent available with former Redskins QB Kirk Cousins, along with defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson to put on the top D-Line in all of Pro Football.
If that wasn't bad enough. the Vikes added University of Central Florida CB Mike Hughes to give them another "lock down" corner to put opposite of All-Pro Xavier Rhodes. Bottom line: Minnesota hands-down has the best defense in the entire NFL, and it got even better this off-season.
But the "backbone" if you will of the Vikings franchise right now is head coach Adam Zimmer, who has instilled a sense of pride, humility, and 'workman-like' attitude among his players that's unrivaled in this modern-day age of "all-about-me" prima donna, spoiled athletes. The Vikings just show up ready to play every week (with the notable exception of their NFC Championship Game loss to the Eagles), and you can bet they'll be a force to be reckoned with when the smoke clears at the end of the regular season.
#3. LOS ANGELES RAMS (a.k.a., "The Dream Team")
IF they handed out championship trophies for the "Best NFL Off-Season", then clearly the Rams are the 2018 NFL Off-Season Champions, after the past few months that's seen them add WR Brandin Cooks, CB Aqib Talib, CB Marcus Peters, and DT Ndamukong Suh, to name a few.
Unfortunately for the Rams, they STILL have to go out and play the games, and prove to every one that their "Dream Team" roster is as good as they are on the field of battle, as they are on paper. Of course, with returning players such as All Pro RB Todd Gurley and former Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, they shouldn't have much trouble with winning enough games to qualify for the Playoffs.
For L.A., it simply will come down to whether or not 3rd year QB Jared Goff can continue the remarkable progress that he made under 2017 NFL Coach of the Year and one of the sport of Pro Football's brilliant young offensive "masterminds" in Sean McVay, who many see as a younger version of Sean Payton himself. That, along with keeping all of those many big egos happy on one team, will be McVay's toughest challenge at keeping L.A. focused on the months still to come ahead.
#4. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
While Saints fans will feel that this ranking is too low, fans from other teams will view this ranking as too high; given that the team didn't make any "splashy" or over-hyped signings in Free Agency that some observers would think puts them "over the top". Though we'd argue that adding Demario Davis to the LB corps and Patrick Robinson to the already-vastly improved secondary, makes the further upgrade of the defense near complete.
The "missing piece" if you will, may have been getting a pass rusher to put on the opposite outside edge of Cam Jordan; which is exactly what New Orleans did by moving up to #14 overall (including giving up a 2019 first-rounder) to draft Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio. The prevailing argument still now almost 3 weeks after the 2018 NFL Draft's conclusion, is that the Saints organization gave up waaaaay too much draft capital to obtain Davenport; but that all depends upon your viewpoint.
From our own perspective, Saints News Network sees the Davenport pick as General Manager Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton making a concerted effort to win this year and the next, while they still have Drew Brees under contract. While trying to "win now" is usually not the priority for teams in the Draft, the Saints essentially took Davenport so they could dramatically improve their chances at having a better pass rush this year, while still improving their defense overall for the next several seasons (with Cam Jordan still in his "prime").
#5. ATLANTA FALCONS
Rounding out our Top 5 (and ahead of both Carolina and Green Bay, the Falcons only made themselves better in the draft, with the help of a little luck that fell their way. Getting Alabama WR Calvin Ridley at #26 overall to put with the Falcons attack of QB Matt Ryan, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu to put with Ridley on the outside? Sheesh, you gotta be kidding us.
Arguably, the Falcons can lay claim to having the League's top offense with those type of names all together now on the field at one time; and credit Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff for pulling it off. Besides Ridley, Atlanta also added Colorado "lock down" CB Isaiah Oliver and underrated University of South Florida defensive tackle Deadrin Senat to put on their much-improved defense from last season.
Much like the Saints, the Falcons didn't make the "splashy" moves in Free Agency as some other teams; and chose to stick with the game-plan that's brought them much of their recent success by making sound and logical upgrades to their overall roster. While it's debatable if their moves are enough to overtake the Saints a top the NFC South Division, it's evident that Atlanta will still be a Super Bowl contender at least for this season until many of their key player contracts expire at the end of the calendar year.
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS ON HOW THE SAINTS "STACK UP" AMONG THE NFC SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS:
While the Eagles are the defending World Champions and they'll definitely be a team that every one in the NFC will have to deal with, they certainly aren't invincible by any means.
From a pure "talent" stand-point, it's debatable if whether or not the Vikings, Rams, Saints or the Falcons aren't now on par with or possess the same amount (if not better, actually) of player capability that Philly had a year ago prior to their Super Bowl run.
For the Saints specifically, the 2018 season should be all about "picking up where they left off" — and FURTHER BUILDING UPON the success that the organization has had with replenishing the roster in recent seasons; with players whom not only possess top-notch on-field playing ability, but who also are upstanding young men of high character that have a clear and unwavering understanding of the organization's "vision" for both the present and the future.
Yes, the way that last season came to a very disappointing end in the manner that it did — on a missed tackle by a rookie no less — was a heart-breaking experience for many Saints fans, and understandably so.
But this 2018 Saints team going forward, so long as they are able to avoid any type of catastrophic injuries that can potentially derail an entire season for some teams, has as good of a chance of getting to the Big Game next February as anybody in the conference and the entire League (and AFC teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Jaguars) for that matter.
It simply will come down to execution, playing fundamentally sound, and of course: having the ball bounce their way at least a few times; although as it's often said: the "good teams make their own luck".