The New Orleans Saints carry a formidable pedigree for a sixth seed in the NFL playoffs. In a quarterback-driven league, they feature one of the best in Drew Brees. Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan are two of the more innovative coaches in today's NFL. Several players on the roster boast championship hardware. Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in football.
Sixth-seeded teams aren't often made like this one, and this makes the Saints great contenders to be a dark-horse team in this year's NFL playoffs.
There are a number of talking points that have fueled the discussion around the Saints playoff chances. Two in particular stand out: They have never won on the road in the playoffs, and they don't like the cold. Fortunately for the Saints, they don't play history. They begin their postseason journey against the Philadelphia Eagles and the league's worst pass defense.
The astronomical ability of Brees bodes well for the Saints should they find themselves in a shootout, a great possibility considering the prowess of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles this season (fun fact: Both quarterbacks attended Westlake High School in Austin, Texas). Brees topped 5,000 yards this season for the fourth time in his career and tossed 39 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions.
The Saints attitude heading into the postseason is one of an easy confidence, thanks to the postseason experience of their head coach and several key players. Here is Drew Brees on his team solving their road problems, via Larry Holder of the The Times-Picayune:
"I think there's three main things we need to do: We're going to change up the Gatorade flavor and feel good about that; we're going to change our travel sweats; and we're going to have the hotel change up the beefy mac recipe the night before to give it just a little extra kick."
Those are the words of a man who's been here before and is confident in his ability to deliver. Yes, the Saints did go 3-5 on the road this year—which can't be ignored for a sixth-seeded team—but three of those losses were by six points or less. The only true horror show was the debacle in Seattle, but we will get to that later. As far as the road woes and cold weather argument is concerned, Bill Barnwell digs up some excellent statistics and debunks those oft-cited talking points in his excellent piece from Grantland.com:
"Really, he's about the same in miserably cold weather as he is in scorching temperatures. When was the last time you read an article suggesting that Brees and the Saints offense couldn't handle the heat?"
This also bolsters the fact that the Saints really do have an ideal matchup with Brees against Philadelphia's pass defense. Throw in the fact that wide receiver Marques Colston ratcheted up his performances toward the end of the season—catching 28 passes and scoring three touchdowns over the final four games—and the Saints offense is in great shape to wreak havoc on Philadelphia's shoddy secondary.
Even if you accept the argument that the Saints falter in cold weather and can't hang on the road, you can just as easily point to the Eagles lackluster 4-4 home record and call the home-away debate a wash. This helps the Saints get past the Wild Card Round, but what about afterward?
The Saints road will go through Seattle should they beat the Eagles, and the 34-7 beatdown the Seahawks dished out to the Saints earlier in the year does little to inspire confidence in a deep playoff run. However, that game seemed to be more of an anomaly than anything else. The players seemed deeply confused about just how poorly they played. Tackle Zach Strief said as much to Katherine Terrell of The Times-Picayune:
"We had a good week of practice. I think guys were prepared. I think guys were in the right frame of mind going out there," said Strief. "And yet, you play like that. It's hard to point as to why."
Brees had one of his worst games as a pro, going just 23-of-38 for 147 yards and one touchdown. That is one piece of history that is unlikely to repeat itself.
Further evidence supporting the notion of an aberration? The Saints rebounded by crushing the Carolina Panthers the next week by a score of 31-13, another team they may face in this postseason (they split the season series at a game apiece). A short memory is a great key to success in the NFL.
The Saints also boast a strong defense to go with their hyper-competent offense. Much of that credit goes to Rob Ryan, who turned the worst defense in franchise history into a solid unit that gave up just 305 yards per game and 19 points per game. Their defense doesn't rely on luck either; the Saints have a zero in the margin column when it comes to turnovers and rank in the bottom half of the league in interceptions and fumbles forced.
The Saints strong defense is highlighted by two excellent pass rushers in Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who racked up 12.5 and 12 sacks, respectively. They will be tasked with harassing Foles in the first game and then containing potential foes such as Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.
Now, the loss of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro to injury in Week 16 is potentially the strongest argument against the defense's continued success. Pulling this Saints' safety pin can be the catalyst for the whole postseason blowing up in their faces. As a shining example of a proficient open field tackler, the loss of Vaccaro will hurt the Saints against the spread offense of the Eagles. It also limits them against teams like the Seahawks with bruising running back Marshawn Lynch or the Panthers and their mobile quarterback Cam Newton.
As far as running the football goes, the Saints are one of the few teams in the NFL that can establish a strong offense without any semblance of a rushing game; just ask Pierre Thomas or Mark Ingram fantasy owners. Speaking of Thomas, he is listed as out for at least the Eagles game, according to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com.
He led the team with 549 rushing yards, but that statistic alone should tell you all about which set of shoulders in the backfield will be carrying the Saints. Darren Sproles should be able to pick up his slack in the passing game, but it will be up to Mark Ingram to come through with some gutsy runs should the Saints call his number.
You can look at this team as a version of the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who relied on their strong passing game at the expense of nearly everything else. That team defied lengthy odds to come within just a few plays of winning a Super Bowl.
That being said, a dark horse doesn't concern itself with oddsmakers or historical references. All you need to know about the dark horse is its thoroughbred pedigree. Watch out for the Saints this postseason. They have the pedigree.