The Cinderella story of the 2006 New Orleans Saints was one of the year's finest.
A ragtag bunch came together to win the NFC South and march all the way to the NFC Championship game.
The offense finished at the top of the NFL, and the defense overachieved across the board.
The success of the team also happened to rally a city still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
It was like a socially-conscious version of The Replacements, complete with Drew Brees doing his best Keanu Reeves impression.
The sequel in New Orleans looks to be just as promising. Many observers are picking the Saints as the class of the South—if not the entire NFC. But a tougher schedule will test the team, and they won't be sneaking up on any opponents this time around.
The Saints, 10-6 finish of a year ago was deceiving insofar as they only beat two teams with winning records—the Eagles and the Cowboys. They lost matchups against the struggling Steelers and Redskins, and they were swept by the Panthers.
The 2007 slate pits the Saints against the powerful AFC South and the emerging NFC West. The Saints caught no breaks by getting their bye in Week Four—which will leave them with little time for R&R the rest of the way.
The Saints were able to avoid key injuries last year, and staying healthy will be critical to their success in 2007. The make-or-break stretch of the season begins in Week 12, when the Saints face the first of three straight division foes before a breather against Arizona and dates with Philadelphia and Chicago.
With key players gaining more experience and confidence, the New Orleans offense has a chance to be even better than a season ago. RB Reggie Bush in particular will be a deadly weapon out of the backfield...or split wide...or returning punts...or wherever the Saints choose to use him.
Bush led the team in catches last season despite rushing for only 565 yards, and was steadily improving late in the year. His touchdown against Chicago in the NFC title game was a thing of beauty.
Drew Brees is back under center, so the passing game is still in good hands. The team's receiving corps is led by Marques Colston, a brilliant find in the seventh round of last year's draft. While the rest of the wide receivers are nondescript (with the possible exception of rookie Robert Meachem), Brees should allow each to shine with his accuracy and touch.
The Saints defense, like the rest of the team, was a pleasant surprise in 2006—and the unit has added some good players through free agency.
CB Jason David and FS Kevin Kaesviharn will join CB Mike McKenzie in the secondary. LB Brian Simmons will compete for a job at middle linebacker, with overachievers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle on the edges.
The Saints did nothing to shore up a rushing defense that ranked in the bottom third in the NFL last year, hoping instead for improved play from its front four. Ends Charles Grant and Will Smith are great pass rushers, but they'll be counted on, along with DTs Hollis Thomas and Brian Young, to stiffen up against the run.
The 2007 Saints have plenty of potential. Their offense will be scary, their defense will be stout, and they'll still have an entire city behind them. A tough slate of games to close the year may cost them the NFC South title, but the Saints will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
A good sequel needs a bit of drama anyway.
Projected finish: 10-6, 2nd NFC South
Keep your eyes on: Coach Sean Payton—One of the game s best and brightest.
Take your eyes off: K Olindo Mare—Miami's sloppy seconds is not an upgrade over John Carney.