Five NFL Teams Primed to Overtake the New Orleans Saints in the NFC
To repeat as winners of the NFC (NFL from 1966-1970) is more rare of a feat than repeating as Super Bowl champion.
There have been eight occasions in which a team has repeated as Super Bowl champs, but only seven times has a team hoisted the George Halas Trophy in consecutive years.
Only on three of those seven instances has the NFC winner also brought home Super Bowl glory both times.
You have to go all the way back to 1996 and 1997 when a young Brett Favre was leading the Packers to back-to-back Super Bowls.
After winning it all against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, they fell short against John Elway's Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII.
The odds, as they say, are stacked against the New Orleans Saints even to make it back to the Super Bowl this season. A team with Drew Brees, however, cannot be completely ruled out to make another Lombardi run.
Here are five teams ready to snatch New Orleans' crown in 2010.
5. San Francisco 49ers
Now is the time for the San Francisco 49ers. They have been steadily improving since promoting Mike Singletary to head coach in the middle of the 2008 season.
Two-time defending NFC West champ Arizona appears to be on the decline after losing a number of starters to free agency, trade, and retirement. Seattle and St. Louis appear destined for mediocrity again this season.
Linebacker Patrick Willis leads a defense that ranked fourth in points allowed and sixth against the run.
They have explosive play-makers now at wide receiver, running back,and tight end.
This year's schedule is relatively easy. The Niners play against the NFC South and AFC West; the latter has been a weak division for the past few seasons.
A year ago they were 6-2 at home but only 2-6 on the road. San Francisco lost four in a row after a 3-1 start. They were the only team in the NFL to win at least five games against their division opponents and still lose the division.
They won and lost consecutive games by 35 points. Both games were at home.
If the 49ers are going to make a serious run at the Super Bowl this year, they need to get more consistent.
The 49ers face the Saints in San Francisco in Week 2.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Now that Atlanta has finally had a winning season for two straight years, can they make it three in a row?
They certainly have the tools to do it, at least offensively.
Both Matt Ryan and Michael Turner had down years, partly due to injury. Ryan at one point had three straight games with three turnovers (1-2), and Turner appeared in only two of the final seven games while carrying the ball just once against the Jets.
All indications now point to an offense that's ready to get back to its 2008 form, especially with a slimmer, quicker Turner back on the field.
With the offense in place, the Falcons focused a lot of their energy acquiring defensive talent. They made one big free agency splash by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson, who should immediately upgrade a porous secondary.
No team has ever won the NFC South in consecutive seasons and the Falcons are the most likely candidate to keep that streak intact.
The Falcons face the Saints in New Orleans in Week 3 and again in Atlanta in Week 16.
3. Minnesota Vikings
Assuming Brett Favre returns just in time to play in a preseason game or two, the Vikings will return almost every piece to their explosive offense.
Minnesota returns four players who scored anywhere from 6-18 touchdowns and four receivers who made at least 50 receptions.
Adrian Peterson is the centerpiece of this attack, but his fumbling woes are well-documented. He had seven fumbles in the regular season and two more critical fumbles in the NFC championship against the Saints.
Peterson is not the first great back to have fumbling issues. Walter Payton fumbled 30 times in his first three seasons and yet coaches did not hesitate to give him the ball.
While it is important for Peterson to practice better ball security, coach Brad Childress will continue to call his number as long as he continues to produce at a high level.
The weakness on this team appears to be in the secondary, particularly at safety. The Vikings snatched just 11 interceptions last year and only one was by a safety.
Minnesota was 8-0 at home but just 4-4 on the road in 2009. After a Week 4 bye, the Vikes face a four-week stretch against the Jets, Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots...and all but the meeting with Cowboys is on the road.
The Vikings face the Saints in New Orleans on Sept. 9 to open the NFL regular season.
2. Green Bay Packers
No team played better during the second half of 2009 than the Green Bay Packers as they won seven of their last eight games. Their only loss came by a single point on the road against the Steelers.
Much of the credit to their midseason turnaround can be attributed to the better offensive line play. After allowing 37 sacks in the first eight games, they allowed just 13 the rest of the way.
But just as it seemed as if the Packers had figured out their blocking woes, they gave up four sacks in the wild card round loss to the Cardinals. The overtime game ended on a strip-sack that resulted in a touchdown return.
The Packers used their first pick to select left tackle Bryan Bulaga to help ensure that doesn't happen again.
Green Bay's defense was one of the best last year. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson, the Packers were in the top five in both passing and rushing yards allowed, seventh in points allowed, and tops in turnovers.
The Packers were young last year at a lot of positions except cornerback and should be even better with more experience.
Green Bay does not play the Saints this year.
1. Dallas Cowboys
No team gave the Saints a tougher test last year than the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys beat New Orleans 24-17 and halted the Saints 13-game winning streak. That game may have been their biggest of the season as it broke a five-game December losing streak.
The Cowboys' 3-4 defense limited the Saints to just 65 yards rushing, collected four sacks, and, more importantly, forced Drew Brees into three turnovers.
Dallas has talent all over the field. They had nine players in the Pro Bowl, including Tony Romo, Miles Austin, and DeMarcus Ware.
Their high-octane offense added rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant, and he will be a special player if he lives up to the hype surrounding him.
The Cowboys have one of the better defensive front sevens in the league but the secondary struggled at times. They ranked just 20th in the league against the pass.
Only two players intercepted more than one pass and they got very little production from their safeties.
If Dallas can build off their playoff win against Philadelphia, they have as good of a chance as any to play in the NFC championship game.
The Cowboys play the Saints on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas.