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5 Teams the New Orleans Saints Should Hope to Avoid in the Playoffs

Zane BrownContributor IIIDecember 12, 2013

5 Teams the New Orleans Saints Should Hope to Avoid in the Playoffs

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    Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the Saints can clinch a playoff spot with a win on Sunday.
    Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the Saints can clinch a playoff spot with a win on Sunday.Ron Antonelli/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints are legitimate NFC playoff contenders, but like most other contending teams, there are certain opponents they should hope to avoid in the playoffs.

    Football is a game of matchups. The Saints’ strengths pose problems for most squads in the NFL, but their shortcomings make them vulnerable when facing others.

    The Saints are 10-3, and with last Sunday night’s 31-13 stomping of the Carolina Panthers, they now hold a one-game lead in the NFC South. New Orleans currently sits in second place in the NFC playoff standings, and if the playoffs began today, the Saints would be set to host a divisional playoff game. In addition, a win on Sunday against St. Louis clinches a playoff spot for New Orleans.

    The Saints are thus in a great position to not only make the playoffs, but to host at least one game.

    Some playoff-contending teams, such as the Eagles, Cowboys, and Bears, would be favorable matchups for New Orleans, but there are other squads in the league that pose more daunting challenges. Whether these issues are related to personnel mismatches, cold weather, or a more physical brand of football, the Saints would be better off avoiding these squads. Here are five teams the Saints should hope to avoid in the playoffs.  

     

5. Carolina Panthers

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    The Saints defeated Cam Newton and Panthers 31-13 last Sunday night.
    The Saints defeated Cam Newton and Panthers 31-13 last Sunday night.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The reason for the Panthers being on this list is simple: It’s very challenging to defeat a team three times in one season. The Saints already won the first round against their divisional foes last Sunday night in New Orleans, and the rematch comes on Dec. 22 in Charlotte, NC.

    If the Saints can fend off Carolina for the NFC South crown, they would likely receive the No. 2 overall seed in the NFC. This would mean the Saints would host the Panthers if the two were to meet in the playoffs. But if Carolina bests New Orleans in the rematch, the dynamic would then change, and the Saints could be forced to travel to Carolina for a road playoff game if they don’t close strong. This would put New Orleans in a difficult spot, as the Saints would likely have to post road wins over both Carolina and Seattle in order to reach the Super Bowl.

    On the flip side, playing in New Orleans against the Panthers, while certainly favorable, isn’t a guaranteed win for the Saints in a playoff scenario. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is an extremely tough environment to play in, as Cam Newton and his Carolina teammates can attest to, but the fact that the Panthers have already played there and gained experience dealing with the raucous home crowd helps them immensely.

    Despite the fact that the Saints blew out Carolina last Sunday night, the Panthers have the type of team that can hurt New Orleans. Carolina has an exceptional defense that features a ferocious pass rush. The Panthers rely on a strong running game, and they feature a capable quarterback in Newton who can beat defenses with both his arm and his legs.

    These two teams know each other's strengths and weaknesses quite well. While this could benefit the Saints in some ways, it would definitely help the Panthers as well.

    For instance, productive Carolina defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are likely to be much more familiar with New Orleans' blocking schemes, and could easily fare better with their pass rush than they did last Sunday.

    All things considered, it would be in the Saints’ best interest to win out, secure the No. 2 seed, and avoid the Panthers in the playoffs altogether.

4. San Francisco 49ers

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    Frank Gore and the 49ers running game are difficult to corral.
    Frank Gore and the 49ers running game are difficult to corral.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Year-in and year-out, one ongoing criticism of the Saints is their perceived lack of physicality. Yes, quarterback Drew Brees and company can move the ball up and down the field with their high-octane offense, but New Orleans has a reputation of being a team that can sometimes be pushed around in the trenches.

    The Saints have, in part, shed this label in 2013 with a much-improved defensive line, but they haven’t fully disposed of their reputation as a finesse team. Losses to the Seahawks and Jets again ushered this criticism back to the forefront.

    The ever-physical 49ers prefer to pound opposing defenses with running back Frank Gore, while using their stout defensive front to slow down the opposition’s run game. They’ll certainly employ this approach if they get a playoff matchup with the Saints.

    New Orleans narrowly defeated San Francisco three weeks ago, but it was a contest that could have easily gone the other way. Dynamic dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick has improved his play since then, and he's already proven his worth in the playoffs during last season's Super Bowl run.

    San Francisco is certainly beatable, but the 49ers aren’t a team New Orleans should look forward to butting heads with in the playoffs, and their physical style of play warrants them being on this list.

3. New England Patriots

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    Tom Brady and the Patriots are no strangers to playing in adverse conditions.
    Tom Brady and the Patriots are no strangers to playing in adverse conditions.Mark Konezny/Getty Images

    If the Saints face the Patriots in the playoffs, the setting will be Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, NJ.

    Granted, the Patriots just lost All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowki for the season, and they’re limited at wide receiver. But the difficulties involved with facing them in the Super Bowl go far beyond that.

    For starters, this year’s Super Bowl is to be played outdoors. In New Jersey. In early February. Cold weather makes the going much tougher on the New Orleans offense, as it does most teams that play the majority of their games indoors. The same can’t be said for the Patriots, as frigid playoff games occur quite frequently at their home stadium in Foxborough, MA.

    There’s also the experience factor to consider, which helps catapult New England to the No. 3 spot on this list. Tom Brady and the Patriots have played in five Super Bowls, including two since New Orleans made its only appearance. The Super Bowl is quite a different atmosphere than any other single game in all of sports, and the more experience a team has playing in one, the better.

    This all-important experience makes New England about as tough a draw as can be for this particular Super Bowl, especially for a dome team like New Orleans. Due to the Patriots' familiarity with cold weather, their experience in Super Bowls, and of course, their excellent quarterback, they shouldn’t be on the Saints’ (or anyone else’s) wish list as an opponent for the big game.

2. Denver Broncos

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    Peyton Manning is enjoying a fantastic season.
    Peyton Manning is enjoying a fantastic season.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    The Broncos are another exceptional AFC team, and as an NFC team, New Orleans can only meet them in the Super Bowl. Like the Patriots, the Broncos have an advantage over the Saints in that they’re much more experienced playing in cold weather. The Broncos edge the Patriots for the No. 2 spot on this list, however, because they present more matchup difficulties for New Orleans.

    The Saints lack depth in the defensive backfield, particularly at cornerback. The Patriots may lack depth at wide receiver, but the Broncos are a different animal entirely. They spread teams out with a slew of dangerous receiving threats, while pounding the ball between the tackles.

    Wes Welker is a master at running short to intermediate routes and creating separation. Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas plays the role of tall, prototypical wide receiver, and his deep ball capabilities give opposing defenses fits. Wideout Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas are also quality receivers, and their presence helps make Welker and Thomas even more effective. In addition, running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball help keep defenses honest, and both can grind out tough yards on the ground.

    And then, of course, there’s Peyton Manning. The leading candidate for NFL MVP is enjoying perhaps the best statistical season of his prolific career. With 45 touchdown passes, he needs only six more to eclipse Brady’s single-season record. Manning distributes the ball to his collection of weapons with laser-like precision, and there isn’t a team in the NFL that should be eager to face him on any field, including the Saints.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seahawks overwhelmed the Saints 34-7 less than two weeks ago.
    The Seahawks overwhelmed the Saints 34-7 less than two weeks ago.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    As their recent 34-7 victory over the Saints suggests, the Seattle Seahawks are, quite frankly, a terrible matchup for New Orleans.

    The Saints’ miserable trip to the Pacific Northwest exposed glaring weaknesses at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Brees was under duress for the majority of the game, as the speedy Seahawk defensive ends were able to pin their ears back and blow past the Saints’ offensive tackles with reckless abandon.

    When he faces pressure, Brees is usually adept at getting the ball out, but this simply wasn’t happening against Seattle. The longer, more athletic Seahawk corners blanketed the New Orleans receiving corps all night long, and Brees was left with little to no options, other than to occasionally force the ball into coverage.

    Granted, it was just one game, but there’s no reason to think coach Pete Carroll’s squad won’t attempt to take advantage of these very same personnel mismatches a second time around.

    Seattle is perhaps the NFL’s most complete team. On top of that, the Seahawks possess one of the league’s best home-field advantages. When considering the way they manhandled the Saints in the first contest, they’re the last team in the league the Saints should wish to face in the playoffs, especially if the game is at CenturyLink Field.

    The New Orleans Saints are an excellent football team, and they should be considered one of the top five squads in the league. They could arguably defeat multiple teams on this list in a playoff matchup, and they've already bested two of them in the regular season.

    But New Orleans would encounter difficulties with each one of the aforementioned teams. The Saints could attempt to game-plan their way around these deficiencies, but a playoff meeting with any of these squads should not be high on the Saints’ Christmas wish list.

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