How the Saints' Incredible Turnaround Has Changed the NFC Playoff Picture

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystNovember 21, 2012

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints drops back to pass against the Oakland Raiders during the third quarter of an NFL football game at Coliseum on November 18, 2012 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After getting off to an 0-4 start that seemed to destroy any chance the New Orleans Saints had of being the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium, the team has gone on an equally improbable string of five wins in six tries, inserting themselves right back into the thick of the NFC playoff race.

The Saints play a critical home game this week against the San Francisco 49ers, and while that task may seem daunting given how the 49ers just dismantled the Chicago Bears in the last game played at the Superdome, the Saints took down the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons.

If the Saints are going to stay in the race then they need to figure out a way to defeat the 49ers, and as quarterback Drew Brees told Nakia Hogan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, that all starts with figuring out a way to contain talented pass-rushers Aldon and Justin Smith (no relation).

"You can't have any wasted movements, any wasted time," Brees said. "You know those guys are bearing on you. To their credit, really that entire front seven, but especially when those two guys get to the same side it's pretty impressive what they are able to do as a tandem."

However, the Saints' resurgence has had an impact far beyond the Mississippi Delta, and if Brees and company can down the Niners then that win will send shockwaves throughout the conference.

Simply put, the more the Saints scratch their way back into the playoff picture, the more crowded the dance card in the NFC becomes, and regardless of how many playoff contenders there are in the NFC, the number of playoff spots isn't going to grow.

That amps up the pressure on every team trying for one of the two wild-card spots. It seemed that one of those spots seemed destined to go to an NFC North team. With that said, though, the picture in that division has gotten a lot cloudier, as the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears appear to be headed in opposite directions, while the pesky Minnesota Vikings refuse to go away.

The Vikings aren't the only young team exceeding expectations this year. Like the Vikings, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks sit at 6-4 and in the hunt, but this is uncharted territory for these teams, and it's not known how they'll deal with the pressure of the stretch run.

The Saints have been here before, but if they're going to get back to the postseason, it's not going to be easy, as only one of their remaining opponents currently has a losing record.

Running a gauntlet that includes matchups with the 49ers, Falcons, New York Giants, Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys may seem an insurmountable task for a team with the NFL's worst defense, but as the New England Patriots showed a year ago, a superstar quarterback can go a long way toward compensating for defensive shortcomings.

Last I checked, the Saints have one of those.

It's not going to be easy, and in all honesty the odds are against them pulling it off, but if the New Orleans Saints have done anything over the past six weeks, it's put the rest of the NFC on notice.

Because they're on the march again.