The New Orleans Saints (10-4) are headed to the postseason, but there is an uneasy feeling within the fanbase and, arguably, within the team. After starting the season 1-2 and looking as shaky as a leaf in the winter, the Saints rattled off nine consecutive wins. They then proceeded to lose a 24-21 road-decision to the hapless 4-9-1 Philadelphia Eagles, before succumbing to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, 32-29 last Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Now armed with a two-game losing streak, the Saints will welcome the Minnesota Vikings (6-8) on Friday afternoon in NOLA. Minnesota is a team with nothing to lose that has always relished breaking the Saints’ hearts. I do not need to remind you. The Vikings, for all their flaws, have two game-changing wide receivers in rookie Justin Jefferson from nearby LSU and Adam Thielen. Minnesota also features talented running back Dalvin Cook, second in the league with 1,484 rushing yards (5.0 average per rush) and 15 rushing touchdowns (NFL co-leader with Tennessee’s Derrick Henry).
New Orleans has to right the ship if it hopes to win a fourth division crown in a row and play its first postseason game at home. The team is beset by injuries, with wide receivers Michael Thomas and Marquez Callaway on Injured Reserve, while Tre’Quan smith left the Chiefs game with an injury. Free safety Marcus Williams is also likely out with a low ankle sprain, while breakout defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who leads the team in sacks suffered a stinger against Kansas City and his availability against the Vikings on a short week is not guaranteed.
So, is the sky falling? Not just yet. This is why Sean Payton makes 8.5 million dollars a year. The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league and winning nine games in a row is old news now. Payton has to avoid letting his team collapse and lose the division to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) who trail New Orleans by only one game in the NFC South now, albeit having lost both regular season games to the Saints. The head coach has made some arguable calls this season, including starting his “pet project” Taysom Hill instead of the much more experienced Jameis Winston when Brees went down for four games due to rib injuries. The Saints’ head coach now has to find a way to re-instill confidence into his team, win the remaining two games (vs. Minnesota, at Carolina) and head into the playoffs on a high note. He also has to manage injuries smartly, a delicate task while trying to win games. Can he do it? It won’t take us long to find out.
For now, let’s take a look at some noteworthy numbers for the Saints as the NFL regular season draws to a close.
1 - The Magic Number
The magic number for the Saints to claim a fourth straight NFC South division title, a feat never yet accomplished in the history of the division. The Saints have two winnable games coming up, against teams with a combined record of 10-18. The Vikings figure to be the toughest challenge, despite playing in the Superdome. Carolina (4-10) is a road game, but the Panthers are going through a rebuilding season under rookie head coach Matt Rhule and former Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Two games to win one and make history. Can the Saints do it? We shall find out.
6.5 - Should We Worry?
The number of sacks by Saints’ defensive end Cameron Jordan with only two games remaining in the regular season. Is this the beginning of the end for Jordan or just a down year? Now in his 10th NFL season, the Saints’ defensive leader is having a his most quiet year rushing the passer since 2016, when he totaled just 7.5 sacks during the regular season. And before you bring up the fact that Jordan is often the primary focus of opposing offensive lines, bear in mind that this has been the case for several years, as Jordan has led the Saints in sacks every year since 2015. The last time Jordan was not the Saints’ sack-leader was 2014, when he had 7.5 sacks and Junior Galette led the team with 10.0. This may be a blip on the radar, but something worth watching going forward.
12.5 - Out of Nowhere!
Speaking of sacks, let’s talk about Trey Hendrickson. Who saw this coming? With only two games to go in the NFL regular season, Hendrickson is tied for second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks. Who is he tied with? None other than Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams, arguably the best defensive player in the entire NFL. Both players trail only T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers by half a sack. During his rookie year in 2017, Hendrickson had only two sacks, but showed that he could have some potential for growth. The next season he had none, in a year cut to only five games due to injuries, A year ago, the fourth-year player out of Florida Atlantic had 4.5 sacks, which ranked third on the Saints, behind Marcus Davenport and Cam Jordan. And then came the explosion: in his contract year, Hendrickson, who makes a base salary of $825,000, is leading the Saints in sacks, but has been a force rushing the quarterback even when he did not get home. Hendrickson, like many players drafted by the Saints in 2017, is a testament to the team’s better draft philosophy and another illustration of why they have been so successful since 2017. His numbers are going to force the Saints to think hard about re-signing him as he enters unrestricted free agency this offseason.
47 - The Best
The number of regular season wins by the New Orleans Saints since the beginning of the 2017 season (62 games). They are tied for best in the NFL during that span. With two games left in 2020, New Orleans is 47-15 since September 11, 2017. Only the defending Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs have had as many regular season wins in the same time frame. Coming in third place are the New England Patriots (42-20), while the fourth-ranked team in wins during that span are the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 41-20-1 record. The Seattle Seahawks round out the top five with a 40-22 record. For schnitzels and giggles, the Falcons have a 28-34 record in that same span. I am not making this up.
1,516 - The Best, Part Deux
With two regular season games left, these are the total yards by Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara. The prolific all-around playmaker has already surpassed the 1,330 total yards from scrimmage he had all of last season. Kamara leads the Saints with 165 rushes for 777 yards, and would be a 1,000-yard back if Sean Payton wanted to use him that way. He has also caught 80 passes for 739 yards, and would have had much more had Drew Brees not been sidelined for four games this season. These numbers are accompanied by 15 total touchdowns (10 rushing, five receiving), and all lead the team. In other words, the 2020 New Orleans Saints would not be in the playoffs and vying for their fourth consecutive division crown and maybe a Super Bowl championship without number 41. Saints are lucky to have him.