What Will Stop the Saints from Reaching Super Bowl?

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What Will Stop the Saints from Reaching Super Bowl?
John Froschauer/Associated Press

The city of New Orleans might have lost out on its bid to host Super Bowl LII (2018) on Tuesday, but that’s not a problem for the team to consider. The 2014 Saints have reloaded their talent base and could very well push for a spot in this year’s Super Bowl.

With apologies to the lost revenue to the city, the Saints would much rather play in a Super Bowl this season than host one four years from now.

The Saints are four years removed from their last Super Bowl appearance, a 31-17 win over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts following the 2009 season. The team has won at least 11 games and been to the playoffs three times in the last four seasons since, but losses in the postseason (twice to the Seattle Seahawks and once to the San Francisco 49ers—much more on them later) have thwarted championship realities.

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The upcoming 2014 season could be one of the best chances New Orleans has at adding another Lombardi Trophy to the team’s treasure chest. Quarterback Drew Brees should be primed and ready for another 5,000-yard passing season. The offense, all around Brees, should be better, and the second year under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should bring an even more fruitful bounty on defense.

Oddsmaker Bovada (h/t OddsShark) has the Saints at a 20-1 shot to win the title this season. The Seahawks (6-1), 49ers (15-2) and the Green Bay Packers (12-1) all are considered more likely NFC participants in the Super Bowl.

As smart as Las Vegas is when it comes to predicting sports futures, the Saints should be lumped a little closer to those three teams mentioned before. The NFC South should be a cake walk for New Orleans, and this is an improved roster that was accentuated almost perfectly in this year’s draft.

But there will still be obstacles to success. What will stop the Saints from reaching the Super Bowl?

 

Road Woes

With a 26-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs last season, the Saints won their first road playoff game in franchise history. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that New Orleans lost the next week in Seattle and posted a paltry 3-5 road record during the regular season—alongside a perfect 8-0 record in the Superdome.

2013 New Orleans Saints: Home vs. Road
Saints Passing Yds TD Rushing Yds TD Points Record
Home 2718 27 828 8 272-125 8-0
Road 2200 12 645 2 142-179 3-5

ESPN

At home, the Saints threw for 518 more yards, connected on 15 more touchdown passes, ran for six more rushing touchdowns and outscored opponents by an average of 18.4 points per game. On the road, New Orleans was outscored by 4.6 points per game.

The playoff road win shows promise moving forward, it truly does. But the Saints will travel to a number of hostile environments in 2014. Outside their divisional foes, New Orleans will also face the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears on the road.

 

Inefficient Run Game

The Saints finished last season ranked 25th in the league in rushing yards, with 92.1 per game. But that’s only a portion of the problem.

It’s important to remember what running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson did over the Saints’ final two games of the regular season, as well as their two playoff games.

After rushing for 283 yards and a touchdown in his first nine games of the season, Ingram tallied 249 yards and scored a touchdown in his final four games, including a two-game playoff stretch where he averaged 5.2 yards per carry.

Robinson really shined in the playoffs, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and putting up 102 rushing yards in two games. In 10 regular-season games, Robinson rushed for 224 yards.

The duo of Ingram and Robinson could continue to grow as rushers, building upon late-season success. Add in Pierre Thomas, and this running back corps could be much improved in 2014. But this unit will be without spark plug Darren Sproles, who is now with the Eagles, and there were times of incredible inefficiency last season.

Six times in 2014, the Saints failed to rush for 75 yards or more. They didn’t lose each of those contests, but the wild ups and downs in the running game caused problems for this offense, problems the 2014 team would like to avoid.

 

Offensive Line Depth

The Saints returned four starters from last year’s offensive line: guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, and tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead. The only defector of the group was center Brian de la Puente.

With four starters back in the mix, Brees should be a happy guy—especially since the Saints offensive line was ranked sixth in the league by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in pass-blocking efficiency.

But after those four linemen—three of whom ranked fairly well last season (Grubbs and Evans were both top-20 guards, according to Pro Football Focus, and Strief was the best right tackle in the game), while Armstead grew by leaps and bounds with each start—the depth along the line is worrisome.

Tim Lelito, who could end up being the starting center, only played 162 snaps last year, starting twice at right guard. Very few of the players buried on the New Orleans depth chart at offensive line have much experience. Bryce Harris, and his 246 snaps last season, is a front-runner.

As long as those guys stay buried on the depth chart, New Orleans will be fine. But if injuries occur, the Saints offense could be greatly diminished.

 

The Seahawks and 49ers

In each of the last three playoff appearances by the Saints, the team has been unceremoniously dumped from the postseason by either the Seahawks (2013 and 2010) or 49ers (2011). Add that to the fact that Seattle has won its last three appearances against the Saints and that San Francisco is 2-1 in its last three games versus New Orleans, and the outlook isn’t good.

Let’s also not forget that both the Seahawks and 49ers are tremendously talented teams that also got better in the offseason.

The issue in the playoffs against these two teams—besides the fact that they are extremely good—is that all three losses have come on the road. The harder step would be to grow as a road playoff team and overcome whichever one of these two the Saints end up facing in the postseason.

If those odds don’t sound promising, the Saints must find a way to garner home-field advantage. New Orleans doesn’t lose many games in the Superdome. And while the Seahawks and 49ers might be a touch better than the Saints, they’ll have to mix it up in the NFC West, along with a very good Arizona Cardinals team and a much-improved St. Louis Rams contender.

If Seattle and San Francisco beat up on one another, and the Saints get some help from either Arizona or St. Louis, New Orleans might be able to post a better regular-season record.

The NFC South is much weaker than the NFC West, which means if the Saints take care of their non-divisional games, they could be in good shape to host a playoff game or two. If that were to be the case, chances are the Saints could play in the Super Bowl.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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