NFC Playoffs: Ranking the Biggest Threats for the New Orleans Saints
Okay, so the New Orleans Saints didn't exactly end the season on high note as they enter the playoffs.
You've probably seen the stat by now: No team has ever won the Super Bowl when they enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
At least they're not the New York Giants.
Or the Denver Broncos.
There's a first for everything.
Officially, the road to Miami for the NFC, host of Super Bowl XLIV, goes through the venue which has hosted the most Super Bowls (six), the Louisiana Superdome.
Owners of the conference's best record at 13-3, the Saints are afforded the chance to rest their players who are nursing a variety of injuries and host one and possibly two playoff games.
It's been quite a while since New Orleans has had all if it's key players healthy at the same time.
Running back Pierre Thomas and tight ends David Thomas and Jeremy Shockey have all missed time recently with an assortment of injuries.
Sunday's game against the Panthers marked the first time in eight weeks that Saints played a game with both starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. Outside linebackers Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita combined to miss seven games during the second half of the season.
All seven of these players are expected to be close to or at full strength for the playoffs.
That's the good news.
The bad news (or newz if you're Mike Vick) is that New Orleans has some obstacles in its path through the playoffs.
Each of the other five NFC playoff teams are very capable of beating the Saints.
Here, I will rank each team according to how well the Saints match up against them. The higher the number, the better the matchup is for the Saints.
New Orleans beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in week two, 48-22. While the Eagles were without Donovan McNabb, defense was the main issue for the Eagles in this game.
The Saints scored five offensive touchdowns as Brees connected with nine different receivers.
While Eagles have a respectable running game, they don't run with the consistency needed to bleed to clock and keep Drew Brees off the field. Philly possessed the ball on average three and a half minutes fewer than their opponents.
Defensively, the Eagles rank 17th against the pass and just 19th in points allowed.
The Saints and Eagles will have a divisional round rematch if Philadelphia beats Dallas in the wild card round.
New Orleans defeated Philadelphia in the divisional round during the 2006 season.
The NFC's fourth seed has the worst conference record (8-4) of the six playoff teams and won four of its ten games against two division opponents which are among the worst in the NFL.
The Cardinals, like the Eagles, aren't going to run keep the Saints offense off the field with their rushing attack as they only run the ball 37 percent of the time.
Arizona has had trouble holding onto the ball as they have a league-high 18 lost fumbles and an overall minus seven turnover ratio.
For all the fuss over receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, neither has a yard per catch average this season that ranks in the top 100 in the NFL. Fitgerald's longest reception this year is just 34 yards while Boldin's is 44 yards.
Every Vikings' loss came on the road. In fact, Minnesota's 4-4 road record is the worst among NFC playoff teams.
At first glance, Adrian Peterson against the Saints' front seven seems like a mismatch. However, he went six straight games (weeks 11-16) without a 100-yard game or four yards per carry, including a 19-yard effort in a 30-17 loss to the Cardinals.
If these two teams meet in the NFC championship game, look for the Saints' running backs and tight ends exploit matchups against Vikings' backup linebacker Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley is filling in for the injured E.J. Henderson and has struggled in pass coverage.
Defensive end Jared Allen has 14.5 sacks on the year but has just two in the past five weeks.
Speaking just schematically,the Vikings' 4-3 alignment should be easier for the Saints' offensive line to block than a more unpredictable 3-4 alignment.
Speaking of unpredictable 3-4 defenses, the Packers have made a remarkable transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Rookie linebacker Clay Matthew has emerged as a leader in the front seven and cornerback Charles Woodson has matched Saints safety Darren Sharper's numbers with nine interceptions and three touchdowns.
The Packers as a team are second in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed.
Aaron Rodgers is the unquestioned leader of the offense and has explosive play-makers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings at his disposal. Tight end Jermichael Finley is also sure to give the Saints' linebackers fits.
1. Dallas Cowboys
The first team to beat the Saints this season is also the Saints biggest roadblock to the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys, maybe the NFC's most talented team, have the ability to exploit the Saints' two biggest weaknesses: consistency in the run defense and pass protection against 3-4 defenses.
The Cowboys' dynamic rushing attack tore up the Saints' front seven for 145 yards in week 15.
Linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer each got to Brees multiple times as they too often got through the line with little or no resistance.
Dallas has shut out its last two opponents and held the Saints to three points through three quarters.
Fortunately, Dallas won't face New Orleans until possibly the NFC championship game.
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