A collective gasp could be heard around the Who Dat Nation when the Saints released their first injury report of the week, and Drew Brees was limited with a knee injury.
Well Thursday, Coach Sean Payton said Brees had a "bruised right knee" and took every rep in practice. "He's fine. He was full today. There is nothing more to it than that, you wouldn't have noticed it," Payton explained.
The Saints have a number of different scenarios that could play out in the final week of the regular season putting them in different positions for the playoffs or even on the outside looking in.
The good news is that the Saints control their destiny when it comes to a playoff berth. The postseason has already started in many ways with Payton saying earlier this week they're approaching this game against Tampa as a playoff game.
The Saints could end up as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, division champions, and have a first round bye with some help from the Atlanta Falcons. The bottom line is if they win, they're in the dance. If the Panthers lose in Atlanta, a Saints win gives them to #2 seed. If they lose, they need the Cardinals to loose too.
Saints 27 - Bucs 17
Panthers 20 - Falcons 17
Saints open playoffs in Green Bay or Philadelphia
Too often the media and the fans look at a schedule and see a sub .500 record late in the season and start asking the question: "Is this is a trap game?" Several fans have asked me that very question this week ahead of the Saints Sunday clash with the 5 and 8 St. Louis Rams. The Saints are 10 and 3, coming off a convincing 31 to 13 win against the Carolina Panthers (9-4) back on Sunday night. The Rams have lost six of their last eight games and are playing with a backup quarterback and backups at several other positions. They've been decimated by injury this season. Sounds like I'm making the case for a potential "trap game" huh? Well, actually I’m not.
The Saints can't afford to look past the Rams, and they won’t. The Saints can clinch a playoff spot with a win over St. Louis, furthermore they would be one victory away from clinching the #2 seed and the NFC south divisional crown. The players I've talked to this week have all said that championship teams start playing their best football at this time of the year. The Saints are hoping they've already begun that push toward elite play. If this were in November, or October I would say you have some validity to a "trap game" argument.
The Saints are favored by 6 points over the Rams. This season the Black and Gold have been exactly what their away record says, they are 3-3 on the road. I like the Saints to win this game despite their mediocre road record this season, they're indoors, not dealing with a fired up fan base. The Saints recognize what's in front of them. The Saints should win by at least six points.
No we're not talking Super Bowl titles, or heavy weight titles, but the NFC South crown is on the line Sunday when the 9 and 3 Saints host the likewise 9 and 3 Carolina Panthers. "I think we all know what's at stake here. This is all for the division title," said quarterback Drew Brees. Not to mention the winner of the NFC south will likely end up with the #2 seed in the NFC playoff picture. The Saints have owned the primetime stage at home with Sean Payton on the sidelines. They have 14 straight victories at the Superdome on the big stage.
Stats that matter:
I'm not a huge fan of some statistics. I think they can be manipulated to tell one side of the story or the other, good or bad. Some stats can be misleading in the overall effectiveness of a team. With that said, keep an eye on the time of possession (TOP) in this game. The Saints are right behind the Carolina Panthers in TOP this season. The Panthers come in averaging over 33 minutes in time of possession, the Saints just over 32 minutes per game. Converting third downs will be another key to this. The Saints have struggled to string together some drives recently. New Orleans has scored 1 touchdown in their last 19 possessions.
Who has the longest rushing TD of the season for the Saints? How long was it? Pierre Thomas? Darren Sproles? Wrong! Drew Brees has it with a 7 yard keeper against Arizona in week 3. The Saints have seven games this season without a rushing TD. That is eye-popping. Please don't take this as an invitation to blame it on Mark Ingram. That's not all on him.
After the nightmare loss in Seattle, followed by an extra night in the Emerald City because of palne problems, the Saints landed in New Orleans Tuesday afternoon. They already had a significant amount of film study completed on the Carolina Panthers. After being stranded in Seattle, the Saints made a few audibles and started preparing on their iPads and tablets. The digital age allowed the Saints to avoid a setback in preparing for a first place showdown with the red hot Panthers riding an 8 game winning streak.
The Panthers are playing like a team destined and built to win in the playoffs. Carolina leads the league is scoring defense and total defense. They've ripped off 8 straight wins, and QB Cam Newton looks like the player he was projected to be coming out of Auburn in 2011. Newton is much more patient passing the football, and as we've seen, he might just be the most dangerous running back at the quarterback position in the entire league.
The Saints treated Wednesday a lot like a traditional Tuesday (players day off). Sean Payton said the team will work Thursday, Friday, and get a little more work than usual on Saturday. Payton said it was planned ahead of time to hold this schedule coming off a long trip to Seattle, and it is not precipitated by the plane troubles that kept the Saints in Seattle until Tuesday morning.
Seattle leads the nation in depression. It's a wonder, because their football team is reason alone to celebrate in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks methodically dismantled the Saints on Monday night football 34-7. New Orleans 10-0 run on the Monday Night stage was shattered. The seven points from the offense was the lowest output in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees Era. The Seattle defense also held the Saints offense to 188 total yards. Want more troubling statistics? The Saints have scored only one touchdown in their last nineteen offensive drives. This beat down had little to do with the crowd noise at CenturyLink Stadium and little to do with the four and half hour plane ride to get there. The humbling and eye opening loss had EVERYTHING to do with the better team on this night, on any night, and on any field... the Seattle Seahawks.
The Black and Gold are now 9 and 3 on the season and 3 and 3 on the road. It doesn't get any easier from here, with a red hot Carolina Panthers team riding an 8 game winning streak coming to the Superdome this Sunday. I was definitely in the Saints corner on this one, I thought and predicted New Orleans would beat Seattle. I was dead wrong. Seattle is by far the best team in the NFC and arguably the best team in the NFL. Their sparkling 11 and 1 record solidifies that argument. The Saints could play the Seahawks 10 times in Seattle or New Orleans, and the result will be the same more often than not. They might not get blown out, but they just don't match up well with Seattle home or away.
On a short week, the Saints would be wise to flush this one fast. The Panthers have their sights set on the NFC South crown. The Saints would be better served trying to clinch a playoff spot, preferably the second seed in the NFC, and hope another team can come to Seattle and beat the Seahawks in the postseason. If you have seen the team that can do that in the NFL this season, please let me know. The Saints could go from vying for the top spot in the conference to fighting for a wild card berth in a matter of weeks if they don't fix an offense that has scored just 24 points in the last 8 quarters of play.
For the glass half full Who Dats still holding out hope the Saints can clinch the number one seed in the conference, well even if Seattle goes 2 and 2 in their final two games, they would own the tiebreaker over the Saints. Sure it's possible, but not likely. For the delusional Saints fans forecasting a Seahawks collapse in the final four games, please don't kid yourself. Did Seattle look like a team that might struggle? The Saints still control their own destiny, and the Seahawks have embarrassed many a team at CenturyLink. Sean Payton has often said, in every season "There is Crisis or Carnival." Which one are the Saints facing? We'll know more in about three weeks.
The Saints look to be a loose team headed into tonight's Battle in Seattle, they've been here before ahead of a monster game with tons of potential ramifications on the line. Don't misunderstand, by loose I mean confident and aware of what's in front of them. By loose I also mean very respectful of the Seahawks that own the NFL's best record at 10 and 1. The Saints have reason to be confident. They match up with Seattle perhaps better than any other team in the NFL. If there is a team that can go on the road and take down the Hawks and the 12th man, it's New Orleans.
The forecast for today calls for rain off and on all day, and cold temperatures in the 40's, falling into the during the game 30's. The players say they've mentally and physically prepared for foul weather conditions and will not use that as an excuse if they lose. The Saints are 2 and 6 when the game time temp is under 40 degrees (when the starters play). They lost in 2009 at Carolina in the final game of the season, most of the starters rested that game.
The Saints have to stop Marshawn Lynch, a physical runner that can absolutely take over a game if he gets going. Lynch is having a monster season with 928 yards rushing and 9 TD's so far. The biggest storm the Saints might face is the crowd noise. They can't allow the Seahawks to get off to a fast start and work that crowd into frenzy even further. More importantly, the Saint defense has to get off the field on 3rd down; an area they struggled with against the Falcons last week.
I've gone back and forth on my pick this week. In the end, I like the Saints to pull this one out. They've been told all week that they can't, therefore they will. This game has Sean Payton's edge written all over it. I predict: 27-24 the Saints win and gain the inside track on the #1 seed in the playoffs.