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Saints continue to catch good teams at bad times ahead of playoffs

It’s taken a little luck, but the Saints are still marching.

NEW ORLEANS, LA:  The New Orleans Saints starting offense and defense are introduced during pregame ceremonies prior to a contest against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA: The New Orleans Saints starting offense and defense are introduced during pregame ceremonies prior to a contest against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It’s been a wild year for New Orleans Saints fans. Between an 0-2 start to an improbably comeback over Washington, we’ve seen the Saints beat the math and run through one of the NFL’s most-difficult schedules to earn a playoff berth.

These Saints aren’t just surviving a gauntlet. They’ve sprinted through it to cement themselves as one of the leading title contenders.

Every team has to play the hand they’re dealt, and there’s probably better metrics to look at (DVOA comes to mind) than simply strength of schedule. But I’m pressed for time between holidays and this illustrates my point well enough.

Right now, with one week’s worth of games left to play in regulation, there are 17 NFL teams with a winning record. Some of them have been eliminated from playoff contention and others have secured first-round bye weeks.

Of those teams, the top seven play in the NFC. And of that group, the leading three share a division; the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints. As we’ve seen, the Saints have the Panthers’ number (winning both matchups with a combined score of 65-34), and the Falcons went limp when it mattered most.

Of their four losses, the Saints fell to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots to start the year and now both of those teams are locked into a week’s rest for the playoffs. They dropped another game on the road by three points to the Los Angeles Rams, starting De’Vante Harris (now on the practice squad) and P.J. Williams (in his eighth career start in three years) in place of Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley. The Rams are now resting starters for their regular season closer. An anomalous Thursday night road loss to the Falcons rounds it out.

It’s no secret that the Saints’ defense has picked on a number of bad quarterbacks. Jay Cutler, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Matt Ryan, Mitchell Trubisky, and injuries to Matthew Stafford, Jameis Winston, and Cam Newton have helped them out. But they’ve still beaten good teams along the way - the Panthers, for example, have yielded 30+ points in just three games. Two of those came in losses to the Saints (who swept the Panthers this year with a combined score of 65-32). The Saints also happened to run for more yards than anyone else on the Panthers, logging 149 and 148 on the ground (next-best were the Green Bay Packers at 120). Put another way, a fifth of the total rushing yards allowed by Carolina’s consensus-good defense came against the Saints. The Saints exposed the Panthers.

Other NFC playoffs squads don’t look nearly as tough. The Philadelphia Eagles saw franchise quarterback Carson Wentz cruelly taken from them, replaced by former Jeff Fisher disciple Nick Foles. That doesn’t excuse their terrible defensive performance, allowing 429 passing yards to Eli Manning just a week ago. The Eagles haven’t beaten a great team all year. Their two losses came to the inconsistent Kansas City Chiefs and a Seattle Seahawks squad that’s falling backwards into a wild card appearance. They stole a five-point win from the Panthers, who the Saints have manhandled.

So now the playoff picture is coming into focus. The Saints will very likely host a playoff game after putting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers down this weekend, and face either an NFC South rival they’ve already beaten (the Panthers or Falcons) or a broken Seahawks team. That accomplished, they’ll hit the road for a karmic rematch in Minnesota or, if their luck holds, an easier opponent in Philly.

The Rams’ jobbing to the San Francisco 49ers this week is dangerous; they’re counting on getting that date in Philadelphia instead, seeing it as a smoother advancement to the NFC Championship Game. But if the Saints can win out, the Rams would have to take their audible-heavy offense into football’s loudest venue. How do you think that would turn out?

It’s early, though, so let’s tap the brakes. Tampa Bay is still ahead of us. But the way the wind is blowing, don’t be shocked if this special Saints season could continue to make memories.