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The Saints Will Win the NFC South: Here's Why

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The New Orleans Saints (4-6) are currently second in the NFC South behind the Atlanta Falcons (4-6). However, the Saints have by far the easier schedule to finish the year and here's why they should win this division by a game.

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The New Orleans Saints are reeling after a 27-10 home-loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, their second in a row. While it is doom and gloom in the Big Easy these days, if the first goal for every National Football League team is to win their division, New Orleanians should turn their frown upside down: the Saints (4-6) who currently sit in second place in the NFC South behind the Atlanta Falcons (4-6) will win their admittedly putrid division.

I firmly believe that at this point, the NFC South is a two-team race between the Saints and the Falcons. Although Carolina (3-7-1) and the Bucs (2-8) aren't mathematically eliminated, their schedule for the remainder of the season will simply not allow them to catchup to New Orleans and Atlanta.

If you've read my work before, you know I believe in advanced statistics much more than I do in "total yards," which I think can be quite misleading. I really like Football Outsiders' DVOA system, as it tries to take in account several factors over the season to rate a team's efficiency.

Please, allow me to give you a quick reminder in case you need one: the higher the total DVOA, the better the team efficiency. Similarly: the higher the offensive DVOA, the better the offense. On the other hand: the lower the defensive DVOA, the better the defense. So if we consider the cold hard "smart numbers" and try to add in some intangibles like "home field advantage," what do the remaining games for the top two teams in the NFC South tell us?

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Remaining Schedule Strength and Predictions

When looking at each team's remaining schedule, I considered two main factors: a) the opponent's current total efficiency rating (Total DVOA, as determined by Football Outsiders). b) The location of the games (home/away).

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Falcons (4-6)

Cleveland Browns (6-4) - (-4.6% total DVOA, 19th in the NFL)

Analysis: On defense, despite being ranked 7th against the pass, the Browns are 29th against the run. Playing in the Georgia Dome, Matt Ryan is a much better QB than he is on the road. If on top of that he has a running game, this should be a win for the resurgent Falcons.

Verdict: Win

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Arizona Cardinals (9-1) - (4.6% total DVOA, 15th in the NFL)

Analysis: The Cardinals are interestingly average in total DVOA, which is mostly due to a well below average offense (23rd, -7.8% DVOA). However, their defense is arguably the best in the league, ranked 6th against the pass and 3rd against the run with a ridiculously good -22.3% DVOA. If Atlanta can't run, Ryan has to force throws. That's never a good sign.

Verdict: Loss

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@ Green Bay Packers (7-3) - (24.9% total DVOA, 2nd in the NFL)

Analysis: The Packers right now are probably the best team in the league, along with the New England Patriots. They are a respectable 10th in the league defensively, but where they excel is offensively: 1st in the league with an obscene 22.5% DVOA. Aaron Rodgers should feast on the Falcons' 32nd ranked defense (15.8% DVOA).

Verdict: Loss

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Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4) - (6.9% total DVOA, 11th in the NFL)

Analysis: These are not your grandfather's Steelers. Pittsburgh is ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency (16.7% DVOA) just behind the second-ranked Denver Broncos. However, defensively the Steelers are just 28th (8.8% DVOA) and Matt Ryan should find some passing lanes. I think the Falcons still lose a tight one at home.

Verdict: Loss

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@ New Orleans Saints (4-6) - (3.2% total DVOA, 16th in the NFL)

Analysis: As we all know, this is a grudge-match in what has been one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL. The Saints took the Falcons to overtime in the Georgia Dome in week one and they'll be amped up to get their revenge at home. New Orleans' 6th ranked offense (12.9% DVOA) will eke out a close win at home.

Verdict: Loss

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Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) - (-19.7% total DVOA, 29th in the NFL)

Analysis: The Panthers knew they were rebuilding offensively this year with pretty much no proven weapons for Cam Newton. They didn't anticipate missing Greg Hardy for the whole year and their defense collapsing to 26th in the league. The Falcons will sweep Carolina this year.

Verdict: Win

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Falcons Summary

Remaining Opponents Average total DVOA: 2.6%, 11th in the NFL (1st is hardest, 32nd is weakest).

Falcons' Record Rest of the Way: 2-4.

Final Regular Season Record: 6-10.

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Saints (4-6)

Baltimore Ravens (6-4) - (23.3% total DVOA, 3rd in the NFL)

Analysis: There is no weirder team in the NFL than the Saints. They manhandled the Packers 44-23 in the Superdome, narrowly lost 27-24 to the 49ers, then unpredictably got shellacked by the Bengals 27-10. The same inconsistency leads me to believe that we will see New Orleans rise to the occasion on primetime at home and beat the Ravens. Baltimore's total defense is 10th in the league. However, its 12th ranked pass defense (3.5% DVOA) is one that Drew Brees can exploit in the Superdome.

Verdict: Win

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@ Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4) - (6.9% total DVOA, 11th in the NFL)

Analysis: Remember how I said that these were not your grandfather's Steelers? Well, these are your Sean Payton-led Saints and in the past two years, the road hasn't been kind to them. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Saints are 4-9 on the road, and a dreadful 1-4 this season. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers' Antonio Brown might get 250 receiving yards in the first half against this Saints secondary.

Verdict: Loss

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Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) - (-19.7% total DVOA, 29th in the NFL)

Analysis: The Panthers come to the Superdome where they lost 31-13 last year, when they boasted on of the top defenses in the NFL. Despite the Saints not being as good as they were in 2013, their offense is still a force to be reckoned with (10th in passing, 5th in rushing). Carolina will get swept this year by both the Falcons and the Saints.

Verdict: Win

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@ Chicago Bears (4-6) - (-15.2% total DVOA, 26th in the NFL)

Analysis: Oh look, that's a game on the road, in cold Chicago. You know what I'm thinking already: the Saints will drop that one too, especially given the fact that Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery will be catching balls for the Bears. Chicago's defense isn't very good this year (29th, 10.2% DVOA), which may give the Saints a shot, but an extremely slim one.

Verdict: Loss

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Atlanta Falcons (4-6) - (-6.6% total DVOA, 20th in the NFL)

Analysis: As I stated in the Falcons section above, I think that New Orleans and Atlanta will split the season series this year. This should be a tight affair that the Saints pull out late in the second half.

Verdict: Win

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@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8) - (-25.2% total DVOA, 32nd in the NFL)

Analysis: It's a credit to Head Coach Lovie Smith that the Bucs haven't completely quit on the season and have continued to look somewhat competitive in games. Tampa Bay is ranked 30th against the pass (25.2% DVOA) and that's simply not a good recipe against Drew Brees. But with the game being on the road and outside in the elements, this is the kind of games where the schizophrenic Saints lay a complete egg and back their way into a playoff berth by winning the paltry NFC South at 7-9.

Verdict: Loss

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Saints Summary

Remaining Opponents Average total DVOA: -5.9%, 26th in the NFL (1st is hardest, 32nd is weakest).

Saints' Record Rest of the Way: 3-3.

Final Regular Season Record: 7-9.

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Conclusion

The Saints are going to win the NFC South at 7-9, with the Falcons coming in a close second at 6-10. Atlanta has the more difficult remaining schedule (11th in the NFL) to New Orleans' (26th). New Orleans will finish the regular season with only one road win (at Carolina) while Atlanta will end the year having lost only one divisional game (at New Orleans), but one that will prove costly. Although, maybe not, since missing the playoffs might help rid them of embattled head coach Mike Smith.

That's what my crystal ball says. What say you Who Dat Nation?