Set to play the most anticipated season opener since last year, the Saints and Packers square off Thursday evening. If the schedule makers for the NFL had done anything but make this the first game, it would have been a travesty.
Listening to retired players (like Randy Cross or Mark Schlereth) who've been on Super Bowl teams that have repeated, or won double digit games perennially, the most important lesson a young team can take away is that each year is a new year, not a continuation of the last. Every addition or subtraction made to the roster, every player on the rise or decline and every evolution of scheme by coordinators or the opponent's coordinators will make most assessments about last year's team obsolete (though in a fan's mind, plugging last year's holes makes them a better team this year; in reality, it only makes them a better team against last year's competition).
Simply put, all the hard work, dedication and luck that it took to reach the pinnacle will not be enough to get to the same place a year later. It takes even more, as Saints fans know too well, and you have to start back from square one all over again.
Green Bay is in great position to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. Unlike the Saints, the Packers have already won three Super Bowls prior to their most recent. The point being, it is a little easier to stop the party in Wisconsin than in New Orleans (where we've waited 44 years to celebrate), especially in this unique off-season where the champs never got much time to gloat or be the center of attention.
The Packers are different than a team like the 2007 Giants however. They didn't just get on a hot streak in the post-season; they were hot for a few different stretches throughout the regular season, with injury being the only thing that kept them from staying hot the entire year. The scary thing is that they won it all with 15 or more players on injured reserve, many of whom were main contributors, like Jermichael Finley. All those players are now healthy and back for a title defense.
Aside from being the past two winners of the Super Bowl, the Saints and Packers have a lot in common: a top 5 quarterback, a top 5 offensive guru head coach, a top 5 defensive coordinator, a top 5 general manager, each build well through the draft, each are adept at developing players, each find diamonds in the rough as undrafted free agents and each team is loaded with depth at all the skill positions. So what sets the two apart?
The most glaring difference I see is the pass rush. Dom Capers is old school like Gregg Williams. He's got a top notch secondary that can play man coverage so that he can get creative and send enough blitzes to make Rex Ryan blush. However, I wouldn't panic too much because the blitz needs time to get to the QB, and Drew Brees gets the ball off pretty quickly. Just as Aaron Rodgers beat Pittsburgh's blitz for most of Super Bowl XLV, look for Drew Brees to make Green Bay's day with his quick draw.
The next difference (not as obvious yet) is the Saints ability to go old school and run the ball at will. They have (arguably) the best interior offensive line in the NFL. Want to know the best way to neutralize an aggressive defense? Run it down their throat and come back with play action. Throw screen passes, run draws and counters to take advantage of over-pursuit. I'll gladly take the Saints offensive line - in both run block and pass protection - over Green Bay's. Add to that a bull in tap dance shoes - Mark "The Calves Of Destiny" Ingram - Pierre "PT Cruiser" Thomas with his screen ability and Darren "Mighty Mouse" Sproles playing the role of Reggie Bush, and the Saints offense will be able to slow down Green Bay's defense and force them to think instead of react. Throw Joique "Reach Out And Touch Someone" Bell into the mix for good measure, and I'd say the Saints have the clear advantage in the running game.
Green Bay's biggest match-up problem with the Saints comes in the person of super freak tight end Jermichael Finley. I can't tell you with a straight face how the Saints plan to answer that conundrum. Everything Saints fans envision Jimmy Graham becoming, Finley already is. The Saints will obviously have to bracket him with a linebacker and safety, and quite frankly, this scares me. I wouldn't be surprised if Gregg Williams' game plan is to shut everyone else down and let Finley "get his."
While the Pack's passing attack is a true "pick your poison," they only have a modest rushing game to provide some semblance of balance. This will be one of those games where the additions of DT's Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin (paired next to Ellis) will pay dividends. Green Bay will probably try to take advantage of the Saints DE situation by utilizing outside rushes. Why run at Ellis/Rogers/Franklin? Why not target Will Smith's replacement and/or rookie Cameron Jordan? Now the Saints DB's have to become quicker at diagnosing pass/run situations and be on the lookout for the cut-back run. It will make Green Bay's play fakes more dangerous. We'll learn in a hurry how well the changes at the OLB positions pan out.
These teams are evenly matched. Green Bay has a passing attack that matches up well with the Saints, and a pass rush that is the envy of many Saints fans. The Saints have the edge with the offensive line and rushing attack. Green Bay has the better field goal kicker. The Saints have better cover cornerback depth, the Packers have better safety depth. The Saints have a better defensive line while Green Bay obviously has better linebacker's. So how does this thing end?
Remember what those previous repeat champions said in the first paragraph? The Saints learned that lesson the hard way and, unlike Green Bay, they've taken it to heart this year. Drew Brees organized off-season training activities so while the Packers were enjoying the lockout, the Saints were preparing for the winter. That preparation will be the difference Thursday night when the Saints go in to Lambeau Field and defeat the defending Super Bowl Champions 31 to 27.
Note: these stats are the totals for the 2010 regular season. Each team is different but it's the best starting point we have to go off of. Starting in Week 2, we'll have a new running total. This is to give you an idea of where the team was strong (or weak) in comparison to the rest of the league and weekly opponent. I will spell out most stats the first time they appear, and abbreviate the next. The number to the left of the team's name is where they rank out of all 32 teams in the league in that category. Significant stats (compared to opponent) bolded for emphasis.
6. Saints - 24 points per game, 373 yards per game, 5.6 yards per play, 49% 3rd down conversion, 32:05 time of possession, -6 turnover margin
9. Packers - 24 ppg, 358 ypg, 5.7 ypp, 42% 3rd down, 32:01 TOP, +10 TO margin
3. Saints - 278 ypg, 7.0 yards per attempt, 68.1% completion rate, 33 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 47- 20+ yard passing plays (explosive plays), 26 sacks given up, 90.8 quarter back rating
5. Packers - 258 ypg, 8.0 ypa, 65.1 % comp, 31 td, 13 int, 57- 20+yard plays, 38 sacks, 98.9 qb rating
24. Packers-100 ypg, 3.8 yards per carry, 11 tds, 4 fumbles lost, 3 20+ yard plays
28. Saints - 95 ypg, 4.0 ypc, 9 tds, 7 fumbles lost, 7 20+ yard plays
Translation: Both teams are pretty even on offense. Green Bay has the edge on explosive plays, but their offensive line gives up more sacks. The Saints had too many turnovers last year. Injuries at RB robbed both teams of the balance needed.
4. Saints - 19 ppg, 306 ypg, 5.2 ypp, 32% 3rd down, 16 fumbles recovered
5. Packers - 15 ppg, 309 ypg, 5.1 ypp, 36% 3rd down, 8 fr
4. Saints - 193 ypg, 6.8 ypa, 61.9% comp, 13 td, 9 int, 42- 20+ yard plays, 33 sacks, 83.2 opposing qb rating
5. Packers - 194 ypg, 6.5 ypa, 56.2% comp, 16 td, 24 int, 44- 20+ yard plays, 47 sacks, 67.2 oqb rating
16. Saints - 112 ypg, 4.3 ypc, 13 td, 8 fr, 13- 20+ yard plays
18. Packers - 115 ypg, 4.7 ypc, 6 td, 6 fr, 10- 20+ yard plays
Translation: Both teams are stout against the pass. Green Bay gets more pressure, which results in more interceptions and a lower QB rating for their opponent.
Overall Statistical Summary: These two teams are so evenly matched, you'd swear there's no difference. It should make for a great game. I can say with confidence that I think the Saints running game will be better than the Packers. This should help nullify some of Green Bay's pass rush. The tale of the tape shows that this is the perfect game to kickoff the 2011 season.