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For Saints, Only Way Past the Dominant Panthers is Defense

The Saints have been an offensive juggernaut throughout Sean Payton's tenure in New Orleans. Now if they wish to someday wrestle the NFC South crown away from the dominant Panthers, an improved defense is their only hope.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when the Saints used to own the NFC South? That was so 2009-2011. That was the golden era of New Orleans Saints football: during that span, New Orleans won two division titles, recorded two 13-3 seasons, won a Super Bowl title and made the playoffs three straight years.

Since then, the Saints had a lost year in 2012, made a cameo appearance in the postseason in 2013, have since gone 14-18 the past two seasons and watched the playoffs on TV like the rest of us for two years in a row.

Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers who will play in Super Bowl 50 on February 7 are celebrating their third consecutive NFC South title. A division that had never seen a repeat winner since its inception in 2002 has now been Carolina's sole property since 2013.

Every team can stumble upon a division title every now and then right? I mean just look at these very same Panthers in 2014, when they finished the year 7-8-1 and only won the division because of a missed field goal in a tied game in Cincinnati. Heck even this current Carolina team is far from invincible, after all the feeble 2015 Saints almost beat them twice and one of those games was started by Luke McCown at quarterback for New Orleans.

Here's the problem for the Saints (and for the Falcons and Buccaneers as well for that matter): these 2015 Panthers are not the 2014 vintage, far from it. The black and Blue Cats didn't usurp their division crown this year, they took it. What is scarier for all the other NFC South teams however is how they did it: with great defense, yes...but did you notice their offense? Did you?

In 2015, the Panthers were the highest scoring team in the entire NFL at 31.3 points per game. They were also third in average time of possession in the league (31:44). Oh and wait, they did so without their number one wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin who was lost for the season after a torn ACL in training camp.

For a team whose defense is so highly-touted, this is incredible. This past regular season, Carolina would keep the ball away from you, then score on you. When you got the ball back, their defense would take it away and give it back to that offense which would then proceed to rinse and repeat. That's how you go 15-1 and end up earning a berth in the Super Bowl.

So there's a big bad bully in the NFC South and the Saints have to deal with him twice every year. The question is: how? Stop me if you've heard this answer before: by punching back.

As good as the Panthers were this past regular season, they only beat the Saints by a combined score of 68-60. In other words, despite Carolina's vaunted defense, the Saints scored 30 ppg against their NFC South foe in 2015. Panthers' fans will mention that excellent middle linebacker Luke Kuechly didn't play in the first meeting of the season, but neither did Saints quarterback Drew Brees. So, offense wasn't the problem.

The problem was on the other side of the ball for New Orleans: the Saints went 0-2 against Carolina despite scoring 30 points a game, because Carolina's offense was able to score 34 points a game in the two season meetings with New Orleans and thus bail out its defense and come out of those games 2-0.

All season long, we heard Saints fans complaining about the defense, but what was a bit stunning to me is that many of them also put a lot of blame on the offense. The reason for that is the fact that as Saints fans, we've become completely spoiled by the amazing aerial attack of the 2009-2011 years: those times when New Orleans would put up 40-burgers on opponents on a weekly basis, and having a "turrible" defense didn't matter all that much then. Like I hinted at above, that is the past and we live in the now.

Now, the Saints have to reinvent themselves like Peyton Manning and the Broncos did: Build a strong defense via the draft and take a sizable chunk of the winning responsibility off of quarterback Drew Brees' shoulders. Brees is only getting older and the Saints' offense, while still being a top echelon NFL unit, has shown that it can't carry the dead defensive weight anymore.

So for all of you who are wishing for the Saints to pick a number one wide receiver in the 2016 NFL draft, I say to you: sure, if you want to keep finishing second, third or last in the NFC South, go ahead.

In order to return to the glory of an NFC South title, New Orleans has to become a team that can truly rely on its defense to win games. Because for the foreseeable future, the most dangerous unit in the NFC South is the Carolina Panthers' offense led by Cam Newton. And if you're the Saints, unless you can stop that freight train in Charlotte, you're likely to watch the playoffs and the Super Bowl on TV rather than be playing in it.