As the 2009 playoffs, and the obligatory predictions and observations from the various network sports braintrusts get into full swing, the Saints are, unsurprisingly, given fairly little chance of doing anything impressive in the coming weeks. They have played arguably their worst month of football since September of 2007, heading into their best playoff position in franchise history. The surprising thing is just how easy and complete the abandonment of the Saints' bandwagon was for the football gurus of our glowing talkie boxes.
As bad as the Saints have played recently, they still have the best record in the NFC, they are entering the playoffs healthier than any other team in the league, they will not have to play another road game short of making the Super Bowl, and they managed to retain the top offensive ranking, despite taking off from competitive football a week early. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find an article suggesting the Saints have any hope at all in this second season that wasn't written or filmed in the state of Louisiana. We all know that no team has ever made the Super Bowl after dropping the last three games of the regular season. We also all know that no team has ever made the Super Bowl after representing the city of New Orleans for an entire season. But does anyone recall a less relevant top-bracketed playoff team? Reading the bold observations of such great football minds as Jeff Chadiha, Steve Wyche, and even supposed NFC South Champion Pat Yasinskas, you'd think the Saints were clinging to the same twig of hope as the New York Jets.
My guess for the last top-seeded playoff team to be as lowly-considered as these Saints is Rex Grossman's 2006 Chicago Bears. The same Bears that stole the Saints' last great hopes for a championship away from us, despite all indications that the Saints could not be beaten by such an overvalued squad. That tidbit of meaningless pseudo-trivia gives me some hope. But the more important and equally unquantifiable correlation that leads me to believe these Saints aren't dead yet is the fact that the best Saints team we fielded this season was the middle-ranked, under-appreciated team of September/October that put one embarrassing beatdown after another on some of the then-elite NFL squads. The team that was expected to be clawing desperately at an unlikely third NFC South wildcard spot behind Carolina and Atlanta. This Saints team eats one-and-done predictions and undeniable questions about unfavorable matchups against high-flying smashmouth defenses and solid running attacks for brunch, and craps out 150-yard rushing games, pick-sixes, 4 passing TD's, and 48-to21 thunder! Metaphorically speaking.
Of course, it could easily turn out that the Saints have truly run out of steam, that Payton and Williams' respective bags o' tricks are already turned inside-out, and that these Green Bay and Dallas fires cannot be easily extinguished. As a Saints fan, all I've ever known of January is letdown, or rooting for a team I despise to beat a team I despise more. But this team has crushed a lot of solid teams, and overcome a lot of tough obstacles to earn the right to stage their last stand in front of the toughest "12th man" in the NFL. And the most hopeful aspect of this January for me is that this team has played it's most inspired football in the games when they were widely criticized and underestimated by brilliant predictioneers like Jason LaCanfora and the bespectacled, thoughtful Howie Long. For however little it's worth, they really seem to thrive on being the underdog, even when the underdog, in this case, is the best team in it's conference.
So go out there and prove the Swami and the Professor wrong one more time! And, if it helps any, You suck, New Orleans! Your run defense is a joke, and your running attack is a mirage! And Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers are the greatest quarterbacks in the known universe! Prove me wrong, you bastards.