Who are the New Orleans Saints?
I don't know. You don't know. We can't even pretend we do.
Yes, at 7-2 and following an 49-17 home shellacking of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, they deserve to be listed among the obligatory lists of "contenders" in the league. Sure, they're in the driver's seat in the NFC South.
That said, is anyone outside of Saints Nation comfortable with this team against the other "elite" teams in the NFL?
You shouldn't be.
This is not "hate." I am not calling the Saints frauds, fakes or pretenders. No, I'm simply posing a question that needs to be asked.
If the Saints were put up on a neutral site (you know, like how the Super Bowl is played) against one of the best teams in the NFL (like, for instance, another team getting to the Super Bowl), would they even stand a chance?
Typically, I like to eschew strength of schedule considerations, but it's informative to note that the Saints have played four legitimate playoff contenders this season (Chicago, New England, New York Jets and Dallas). In those games, the Saints are 2-2.
Are The Saints A Lock to Win the NFC South?
Looking ahead, the schedule gets a little more stressful with San Francisco next week, a Monday night in Seattle in Week 13 and two more games against the Carolina Panthers—potential usurpers of the NFC South crown.
Excuse the cross-sport comparison, but this reminds me of a college basketball team that scheduled some nice competition but largely remained untested until the conference slate. Every game counts in the NFL, but some games test more than others. Teams want to be tested—they need to be tested. Just like that hypothetical basketball team knows the tournament is what matters most, the Saints have loftier aspirations than "good regular season."
Exam season is coming across America for college students, but the Saints are about to be tested week in and week out in ways that they have not been so far this season.
So what do we need to find out?
The Saints set a record with 40 first downs tonight. The Cowboys ran 43 PLAYS. Think about that...— Michael Fabiano (@Michael_Fabiano) November 11, 2013
The offensive line, still, is a bit of a question mark. Against the terrible Cowboys defense, it looked like a collection of world-beaters—the biggest, fastest and strongest men on the planet. In fact, quarterback Drew Brees said about them following the game:
For real, these guys were phenomenal today. I love our group. Win or lose, they’re a bunch of warriors. They battle. They take so much pride in what they do. What they did in the run game and the pass game, after being challenged last week, every one of them deserves a game ball.
However, as Brees mentioned, it was just last week that the same group looked like weakly whelps against the mighty New York Jets defense and their opposing front seven.
You know who else has a pretty decent defensive front? San Francisco, Seattle and Carolina.
The Saints' season will depend—almost entirely—on whether or not their line performs well against that group of defenses. More to the point, it could depend—almost entirely—on how that line performs against Carolina.
The rushing defense, as well, will need to take a step forward, as those contenders have strong rushing attacks. All three teams are built around running the ball and (at least for Carolina and San Francisco statistically) stopping the run. It's the traditional method of building teams, and a method that the Saints have largely ignored.
It will be increasingly difficult for Brees and the offense to get rolling if backs like Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch and DeAngelo Williams are playing keep-away. More importantly, do the Saints have the athletically gifted and fundamentally sound defenders needed to stop three of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in the league?
This Saints team has more than enough talent to make a deep playoff run this season, but we won't know anything about them for sure until after they pass those tests. Until then, we still have to ask ourselves who exactly this Saints team really is.