New Orleans Saints: Here's the Key to Winning the Division

Paul Augustin, Jr.Senior Analyst IJuly 22, 2009

In the NFL, every game counts.

Some just count more.

Just ask the Arizona Cardinals. Or the San Diego Chargers.

It is no coincidence that every team that at least tied for the best record within their own division won the division.

The Cardinals were a sub-par 3-7 outside the NFC West. Yet, they went 6-0 against their division rivals and won the division.

What was lost in Denver's much-talked about historic collapse in the final three games of the season was the fact that they only went 3-3 within the AFC West while San Diego boasted a 5-1 division record.

The bottom line is this:

If you can't beat the teams within your own division, don't expect to win it. Or even to make the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Eagles were the only team last year to sport a losing record within their division (2-4) and still make the playoffs.

The six most important games this season on the Saints' schedule are home dates against Atlanta, Carolina, and Tampa Bay and road games against Atlanta, Carolina, and Tampa Bay.

You can circle games against the New York Giants or New England Patriots all you want.

If the Saints don't take care of business against the division, those other games don't mean diddly.


Breaking Down the NFC South

One thing that the Saints' three division opponents did significantly better than the Saints was was run the football.

Atlanta and Carolina ranked second and third in the league, respectively, averaging over 150 yards per game on the ground.

Tampa Bay was 15th as they averaged about 115 yards per game on the ground.

The Saints couldn't quite hit 100 yards per game as they ranked 28th in the NFL.

Amazingly enough, the Saints' run defense was the best in the division (117.8 yards per game). They ranked 17th, the Bucs 19th, the Panthers 20th, and the Falcons 25th.

While the Saints anemic rushing attack held to form against the division (599 yards in six games), the rush defense was a different story.

In six games against the Falcons, Bucs, and Panthers, the Saints allowed 147.3 yards on the ground per game.

Only once did they out-rush a division opponent. The Saints out-gained the Falcons 184-99 in a 29-25 victory.

In that game, the Saints took the lead in the fourth quarter and held on for the four-point win.

They held onto the lead because of their running game. Pierre Thomas gained 23 yards and a critical first down on the final drive.

Had Thomas not had that success on the ground, Atlanta would have gotten the ball back with enough time to score the winning touchdown.

The Saints were twice out-gained on the ground by over 100 yards to a division opponent.

In a 23-20 loss in week 13 to the Bucs, Tampa Bay out-gained New Orleans on the ground 149-44.

Carolina ran the ball down the Saints' throats in week 17. They out-gained the Saints on the ground 234-50.

Now I know the Saints were out of the playoffs by week 17, and they were going for Dan Marino's passing record, but your pride should never allow you to give up 234 yards on the ground.

If the Saints can corral their division's running games, then punch your tickets for a home playoff game or two.

If not, then the Saints will be sitting at home in January watching Carolina and Atlanta in the playoffs again.