When this columnist consistently pined for the New Orleans Saints to drop the finesse act and develop a smashmouth demeanor, it was only with the postseason in mind. Sure, beating up on less talented teams like the Buffalo Bills or the Atlanta Falcons (sorry, Mom) feels good—but getting treated like those same teams against physical squads doesn't.
The Saints undoubtedly face the toughest road to the Super Bowl after achieving only the No. 6 seed in the NFC. For a team that ended up 3-5 on the road, having to navigate the entire playoffs from the passenger seat makes a difficult task even more so.
Now, let's not get it twisted—these opposing teams have to face the Saints as well. And when you have possibly the best QB in the league on your side in veteran Drew Brees, you will always have a chance to compete.
Conversely, the NFC has a ton of talented teams that excel in aspects that the Saints struggle with. One thing's for sure, the Saints will have earned the Lombardi Trophy if they are fortunate enough to withstand the staunch competition.
Let's take a look at how the Saints match up with every foe that stands in their way.
Let's be honest here. We were all rooting for the Dallas Cowboys to beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football so the Saints could have the easiest opening game possible. Not to say that the Cowboys would play as horribly as they did when the Saints took them out behind the barn, beating them 49-17.
Our bias was more due to the fact that the Cowboys lack an offensive identity. Despite having one of the very best running backs in the league in DeMarco Murray, head coach Jason Garrett often gets pass-happy and forgets he even exists.
Teams like that play right into the Saints' game plan. The Saints are the ultimate finesse team and will destroy any squad that tries to mimic their style. But even if you're mediocre, if you come with a good bit of physicality you more than likely have a chance to beat New Orleans—especially if you're at home.
The Eagles are an extremely physical team with perhaps the best running back in the NFL on its side. Eagles back and rushing champ LeSean McCoy anchors the league's No. 1-ranked rushing outfit.
The Eagles average 5.1 yards per attempt, while the Saints give up 4.6 yards per rush. That would normally spell disaster for most teams. But with the Eagles' defense giving up a league-worst 4,636 yards through the air, New Orleans has to be licking its collective chops at the matchup.
The Eagles do a pretty good job at forcing turnovers and can even get after the quarterback at a decent clip. And they play a high-intensity brand of football that can tire out teams rather quickly.
If the Eagles are able to get out of the gate early, they have the ability to control the clock and force the Saints into a one-dimensional attack. Actually, the Saints will more than likely implement a singular-focused attack through the air.
This is a sneaky game that the Saints could very well lose. Inexperience may be the biggest factor with the Saints benefiting from Philadelphia's lack of playoff savoir-faire.
The Green Bay Packers are a scary team. They can be finesse like the Saints or can go physical like the Seattle Seahawks. The addition of rookie running back Eddie Lacy changed the tenor of an already potent offense.
Lacy gained 1,178 yards (4.1 average) to go along with 11 touchdowns. But it's the ferociousness with which he runs that is the kicker. Lacy is an incredible blend of size, power and agility. He's a back in the mold of the New York Jets' Chris Ivory—who almost singlehandedly beat the Saints during the regular season.
The Saints have done well against great running teams like Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers, but both performances were at the detriment of defending the pass. If the Saints load up on the run, their secondary will be absolutely torched—as Green Bay has a plethora of receiving threats that can dominate a game.
What the Saints have in their favor is that Green Bay's defense is softer than Cottonelle tissue. The Packers are 24th against the pass and 25th against the run. A contest between these two could turn into an old-fashioned shootout.
One that I believe the Saints could win.
A playoff matchup between Packers' QB Aaron Rodgers and Brees would be one for the ages. If the Saints were to operate with balance on offense while limiting turnovers, they could very well walk out of Green Bay with a victory.
But if the Saints rely on finesse while the Packers implement their physical run game, it could be a long day for the Black and Gold.
Most believe the Saints match up best with the Carolina Panthers. After lambasting the Panthers 31-13 at home in the first meeting of the year, the Saints followed with a dud of a performance in a 17-13 loss on the road.
While the Saints torched the Panthers through in the air in the first meeting (313 yards, four TDs), less-than-ideal weather conditions prohibited the Saints from duplicating that performance in the rematch.
Conversely, the Panthers barely moved the ball in the first tilt, with QB Cam Newton throwing for 160 yards. They virtually replicated that poor showing with Newton going for 181 yards in the second contest.
Furthermore, the Panthers are billed as a great rushing team but could only muster up 81 yards at home.
They do have a great front seven that can get after the QB and force turnovers. But they lack talent in the secondary to consistently affect great passing offenses.
Overall, the Saints are just a better team than Carolina, and it's as simple as the difference between the proficiency of the offenses. Carolina's offense is average, while the Saints have one of the very best in the league.
If the Saints are fortunate enough to force a rubber match with Carolina, there should be very little doubt that the Saints will walk away victorious.
The Saints are just a bad match for the upstart Panthers. You better upgrade that receiving corps, Carolina.
With the addition of previously injured receiver Michael Crabtree, it can be argued that the San Francisco 49ers are the best team in the NFC. They are loaded on both sides of the ball and are schemed for playoff time.
If football character is defined as the ability to control both lines of scrimmage, the 49ers' team picture should be mounted next to the definition in the football dictionary.
When the Saints survived a 23-20 win against the 49ers, at home, they undoubtedly caught them at an opportune time. In addition to not having Crabtree, the 49ers had just gotten back the best outside linebacker in the NFL—in Aldon Smith—who was clearly rusty, having missed a significant portion of the season.
Now that San Francisco has all hands on deck, they remain a bad matchup for the Saints. QB Colin Kaepernick has found his groove after getting his primary receiving threat back. Running back Frank Gore has also benefited from defenses having to focus more attention to the receiving game.
The Saints held the 49ers to 208 total yards in the first matchup but shouldn't count on that to happen again—especially on the road.
The 49ers will run the ball until they force the Saints to sell out to stop it. Then the Saints have to contend with Crabtree, receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Not to mention Kaepernick is one of the best running threats in the league in his own right.
If the Saints' defensive line can slow the run, there's a very good chance that Crabtree can be taken out of the game by Saints corner Keenan Lewis. Kaepernick can be forced into mistakes, and it would be up to the Saints to take advantage of those mistakes—something they haven't been doing much of this season.
Conversely, if the Saints can establish the run and control the clock, they will have an easier time implementing their aerial attack—but if they pass only...good luck.
For my money I think the Seattle Seahawks are overrated...on the road. By procuring the No. 1 seed in the NFC, they have ensured they will never leave the great state of Washington unless they reach the Super Bowl.
This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like squad might be as dominant as the 1985 Chicago Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens at home. They play an extremely physical brand of football, something the Saints witnessed firsthand in their regular season matchup.
The Saints were demolished 34-7 in a game where they failed to generate or stop much of anything. Technically the Saints held Seattle to 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, but the Seahawks stuck to their plan by attempting 38 rushes and forcing the Saints to focus on it.
This caused a normally average passing team to have a flawless day through the air. QB Russell Wilson went for 310 yards with three TDs and zero INTs. The Saints gave up what seemed like 100 explosive plays through the air.
Many Saints fans chalked the loss up to it being the Seahawks night. Those of you who feel that way shouldn't watch the rematch in the divisional round. Fans should fully expect a repeat of the first game, as the Saints will play right into the Seahawks' strengths.
Seattle has by far the most talented secondary in the NFL and may very well have the best front seven to boot. It also has the benefit of some serious crowd noise at home that works in its favor against teams looking to substitute multiple players on every snap—which the Saints do.
If the Saints had a no-huddle package in their playbook they could give Seattle fits. Instead they wait to the last possible moment to snap the ball and risk pre-snap penalties. It's hard enough to beat a team like Seattle as it is but directly playing into their game plan is a form of football suicide.
If the Saints don't vary their scheme against Seattle, we should put a call in to the football coroner.