When people think NFC Playoffs, they think Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Sure, those two teams have become NFC powerhouses, but the New Orleans Saints are a team to watch in the NFC come 2014.
The Saints finished 2013 with a perfect 8-0 home record, compiling an 11-5 overall record. This season, the Saints will play the NFC North, AFC North, the 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys and of course the NFC South. This may seem like a difficult schedule at first, but the Saints should be able to win all of their games against definitively lesser teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. That already puts the Saints at six wins. Then consider that five of the Saints’ games against strong teams, games against the Green Bay Packers, 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers all come at home; the Saints should be able to win at least three of those games. That puts the Saints at nine wins. The Saints also play two unpredictable teams in the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears; they could win or lose each of these two games, but they will likely win at least one. That puts the Saints at 10 wins. If the Saints play well, they could win 13 games this year; they could easily make a Super Bowl run.
The Saints have become an elite team since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees first teamed up in 2006. They’ve only missed the playoffs twice and only finished below .500 once. Payton also led the Saints to the Super Bowl, beating the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season. Since winning the Super Bowl, the Saints have drafted All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and signed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
The Saints had a decent offseason; although New Orleans lost veteran running back Darren Sproles, they added rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and perhaps their most important acquisition, free safety Jairus Byrd. The addition of Byrd alongside strong safety Kenny Vaccaro gives the Saints arguably the NFL‘s best pair of safeties, only rivaled by the Seahawks’ tandem.
The defense’s front seven has also started to improve under Ryan’s direction. Cameron Jordan and Junior Gallete have both become studs, while Parys Haralson has quietly come into his own as well. The Saints’ only weaknesses on either side of the ball seems to be at inside linebacker and at the cornerback position behind Keenan Lewis. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne have been good enough to keep their starting spots at MLB, but Ryan will try and utilize rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste as well as plug in the veteran Bailey at either the slot or on the right side.
Either way, the Saints will always have a potent offense under Payton, and their biggest concern will be on defense, where they finished fourth in the league last season and only seemed to get better. Losing Sproles will hurt, but Sproles was a product of Payton’s system. Up-and-coming running back Khiry Robinson or former Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram will surely be able to make an impact alongside starter Pierre Thomas this season. It should be a surprise if the Saints do not make the NFC Championship this season barring injury.