The New Orleans Saints weren’t able to snag a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs, but that doesn’t change the fact that the hottest team in football is the biggest threat to dethrone the Green Bay Packers.
Aaron Rodgers and high-flying defending champion Packers were cast as an indomitable juggernaut as they flirted with an undefeated season, but a loss to the underachieving Kansas City Chiefs reminded the football world that Green Bay is vulnerable.
A team with the right combination of talent, execution and good fortune could sneak past the Packers, even at Lambeau Field.
Riding an eight-game winning streak, the Saints have looked like the best team in the NFL in the second half of the season. Though New Orleans has been beaten three times this season, the Saints have the best point differential in the league, outscoring their opponents by a total of 208 points on the season.
Winning in Green Bay with the NFC championship on the line is daunting challenge, but if any team is up to it, it’s Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
Up until their surprising loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the toughest game the Green Bay Packers had played came in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints.
Prior to Green Bay's Week 17 win over the Detroit Lions, the Saints were the only team to finish within one score of the home-standing Packers.
Drew Brees statistically outdueled Aaron Rodgers that night, passing for 419 and three touchdowns. Both quarterbacks were near perfect, but an early fumble by Marques Colston allowed the Packers to grab a 21-7 at the end of the first quarter. New Orleans actually outscored Green Bay from that point forward but couldn’t finish off a final drive that could have sent the game to overtime.
In all, the Saints converted just one of their five red-zone opportunities into a touchdown—an out-of-character performance from a team that has one of the best red-zone threats in the league in tight end Jimmy Graham.
If New Orleans had converted its chances into touchdowns at just its average rate, the Saints would have scored touchdowns on three of those five chances and probably won the game.
There are no moral victories for teams with Super Bowl ambitions, but even so, that game reassures the Saints in their belief that they can compete with the Packers, even on the road.
New Orleans has only gotten better from that point and would enter a matchup in Green Bay brimming with confidence.
The Packers led the NFL in scoring this season, but that shouldn't faze the Saints offense one bit. New Orleans finished the season second in scoring, with just total 13 points fewer than Green Bay.
On top of that, the Saints set a new NFL record for total offense, averaging over 467 yards per game.
We all know about the individual accomplishments of Drew Brees but don't think for a minute that these Saints are a one-dimensional offense. New Orleans is the only team in football to rank in the top seven in both rushing and passing offense.
Beyond that, Brees is one of the best in the game at spreading the ball around to all of his weapons, forcing the defense to account for every receiver on the field. Seven Saints receivers have caught at least 30 balls from Brees this season.
If that offense comes up against a Packer D that allowed an NFL-worst 411.6 yards per game this season, the Saints will have no trouble moving the ball.
Though the Packers haven't trailed often this season, Green Bay's quick-strike offense makes them perfectly equipped to come from behind. Any team that wants to beat the Packers will have to be able to hold a lead.
With a four-headed monster at tailback, the Saints are more than capable of burning clock and moving the ball on the ground. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory give the Saints the deepest backfield in football. Those four New Orleans runners have all received at least 60 carries this season, and all four average over 35 yards per game.
While all four have unique skill sets, all are dangerous. Each runner has ripped at least one run for more than 30 yards and three of the four (Ingram is the only exception) average over 4.5 yards per carry. All four have found the end zone at least once.
That ground game, added to a passing game that allows the ball to hit the turf less often than any team in NFL history makes New Orleans a very difficult team to come back on.
If the Saints are able to jump out to a lead, they'll be able to limit Aaron Rodgers' opportunities to lead his team back.
Green Bay's defense gives up more yardage than any other unit in the NFL, but it's effective because of its ability to generate turnovers.
The Packers lead the league in interceptions, averaging almost two picks per game and are tied for the league lead in total turnovers with the San Francisco 49ers.
With aggressive schemes up front and a secondary full of ball hawks, the Packers play an American League style of defense, patiently and confidently waiting around for the football equivalent of a three-run homer.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, they'll be waiting a while against the Saints, who are one of the best in the league a holding on to the football.
New Orleans fumbled only six times this season, and no Saint fumbled more than once. That total is by far the lowest in the NFL, even though the Saints ran more offensive plays than any other team.
Drew Brees did throw 13 interceptions, but his elevated total is a result of volume, rather than inefficiency.
Brees finished the season sixth in interception rate, with only 2.1 percent of his passes ending up in opposing hands.
Green Bay will have home-field advantage if the two teams meet in the NFC championship, but in the presumably windy, cold weather that dominates the winter months in Wisconsin, it may not be much of an advantage at all.
Aaron Rodgers has proven that he's capable of succeeding in spite of his wintry surroundings, but it certainly won't be an ideal environment for an offense that relies almost completely on its passing game.
He's comfortable at home but not immune to the dangers of the frozen tundra. December was Rodgers' worst month this season in terms of both completion percentage and passer rating.
The Saints are at their best inside their cozy, domed surroundings, but that doesn't mean that New Orleans can't be effective in cold weather. The Saints haven't played any games in cold weather this season, but last year, Drew Brees put up a total of 984 yards and seven touchdowns in his team's three cold weather games.
New Orleans is a great passing team, but the Saints' efficient rushing attack gives them a backup plan if the weather completely shuts down any chance of a passing game.
The Packers will have the advantage of a home crowd and a pregame nap in their own beds, but beyond that, the frozen charm of Lambeau Field will be an equal hindrance to both sides and won't do much to hold down the Saint's balanced offense.