5 Players Who Will Carry the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl
After a one-year hiatus, the New Orleans Saints return to the playoffs Saturday in Philadelphia against the Eagles, and the Saints players have their eyes set on the chief prize—a trip to the Super Bowl.
With a convincing 42-17 home victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, New Orleans punched its ticket to the postseason. The Saints struggled on the road for much of the season, however, and coach Sean Payton's club will be gunning for the first ever road playoff win in franchise history.
In order to reach the big game, the Saints can't simply break the bonds of their road playoff futility; they'll have to shatter them.
As the sixth seed in the NFC, New Orleans will be the visitor for every playoff game, and advancing to the next round will require solid performances from a number of key contributors.
If the Saints are to orchestrate a march to the Super Bowl, the following five players must step up in a big way and carry them.
1. Offensive Guard Jahri Evans
The NFL is a predominantly passing league, but in playoff football, running the ball is paramount to victory.
The Saints running game this season has been Jekyll and Hyde. The team’s better rushing performances have come at home, but with the No. 6 seed, that won’t be an option in this year’s postseason.
Starting Saturday, the New Orleans offensive line must establish a physical downhill running attack. While the Saints’ tackles have been shaky this season, the run blocking of 2013 All-Pro guard Jahri Evans has been a breath of fresh air.
Against an outstanding Carolina defensive line just two weeks ago, Evans was one of the few bright spots for New Orleans on offense. In a 17-13 road loss, he consistently opened up holes in the running game for Saint running back Mark Ingram, who ran for 83 yards. Evans followed that up with another fine performance in last week’s domination of Tampa Bay, as rookie running back Khiry Robinson piled up 50 yards on 12 carries.
New Orleans will continue to lean on Evans’ blocking in the playoffs, and Saints fans are hoping the rest of the offensive line will bring its A-game as well.
2. Defensive End Cameron Jordan
Considering the abundance of quality signal-callers in this year’s playoffs, pressure on the quarterback will be an essential component of a winning postseason formula.
In New Orleans, no one gets after the quarterback better than Cameron Jordan, who has racked up 12.5 sacks this season.
Saturday against Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, Jordan and his teammates on the defensive front will have to be relentless with the pass rush. The more the Saints are able to get to Foles, the more bodies defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be able to devote to pass coverage on a regular basis.
In the pressure-cooker that is the NFL Playoffs, the ability to force quarterbacks out of their comfort zones and into quick decisions can mean the difference between advancing to the next round and going home.
As for Foles, he’s had a fantastic season, but he’s never played in a playoff game. Jordan will be trying to make sure he remembers his first one.
3. Cornerback Keenan Lewis
When the Saints defensive line can't apply immediate pressure, they’ll need to turn to the secondary for help.
Solid coverage in the defensive backfield can lead to sacks, and that’s exactly where Keenan Lewis will play a key role. If Lewis and the other Saints defensive backs can hold their coverages against the Eagles receivers this Saturday, then they’ll make things easier on Jordan and the New Orleans pass rush.
Lewis’ most challenging task against Philadelphia will be containing fleet-footed receiver DeSean Jackson, who has over 1,300 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on the season. Slowing down Jackson certainly won’t be easy, but the reliable Lewis should be up to task.
If the Saints can get past the Eagles, Lewis’ top flight cover skills will be needed again right away in the divisional round and possibly beyond.
4. Quarterback Drew Brees
The inclusion of Drew Brees on this list may appear obvious. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that if the Saints reach the Super Bowl, then it will be because he led them there.
Brees enjoyed another prolific season in 2013, as he passed for 5,000 yards for the fourth time. No other quarterback in league history has accomplished this feat so much as twice, which makes the statistic particularly impressive.
Brees has a road playoff record of 0-3. He's hardly to blame for the losses, however, and has helped produce 36 and 32 points in New Orleans' last two postseason defeats on the road.
With a much-improved defense this season, the Saints likely won't need Brees to push the ball down the field at break-neck pace in every playoff game, but he'll be required to keep turnovers at an absolute minimum. Field position is crucial in the postseason, and Brees and his teammates can't afford to be careless with the football.
Above all else, however, Brees must fulfill his role as the Saints' leader, and that entails serving as a calming influence in the huddle and on the sideline.
5. Offensive Tackle Terron Armstead
As great as Brees is, he won’t be able to do his work if he’s on his back.
The Saints’ pass protection issues in 2013 are well documented. Charles Brown, who started 14 games at left tackle, was finally benched in favor of Terron Armstead with two games remaining in the season.
The rookie from Arkansas Pine Bluff did his best impersonation of a turnstile in his first start at Carolina, and Brees was sacked five times. In Armstead’s defense, Panthers pass-rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy don’t typically make the going easy for anybody.
A week later in the season finale against Tampa Bay, however, Armstead’s play was respectable. Of course, the Buccaneer pass-rushers are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Carolina’s, and they’ve had a way of making the opposition look spectacular all season.
The third start could be the reveal on Armstead, and it just so happens to be an NFC Wild Card Game. If the Saints are to advance to the Super Bowl, they must keep Brees standing upright, and Armstead will play a huge role in achieving this.
On Saturday night, the New Orleans Saints will kick off their playoff run within the cold, unwelcoming confines of Lincoln Financial Field. If they're to reach the Super Bowl, they'll need to throw the burdensome weight of their past road playoff failures aside and follow the lead of the five players mentioned above.