Oh sure, everyone's chic NFC champion pick is the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, that was their pick last year and we know what happened there. The New Orleans Saints finished 7-9 last year in a weak NFC South division, won by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a mediocre 9-7 record. The Saints advanced the NFC Title game in 2006 but fell short in their quest of completing a Cinderella season. Well I'm going to give you my take as to why the Saints should be and, to me, are serious Super Bowl contenders.
Quarterback Drew Brees, 29, enters his third season as the Saints' signal caller and has broken every single-season passing mark in franchise history. Throwing for 54 combined touchdowns, Brees has sure made the investment the team put on him in 2006 pay out in huge dividends. Beginning the season 0-4, Brees passed for only 1 touchdown and 9 interceptions. In the 4 game winning streak that followed, he rebounded with 11 touchdown passes and only 1 interception. Brees finished with 28 touchdown passes for the second consecutive season. The one drawback is that he threw an NFL-record 440 pass completions so the running game will need to get back on track.
Speaking of which, the 1-2 punch of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister showed to be only a one-man show with McAllister going down early in the season with yet another knee injury. Bush was asked to carry the main workload and he showed flashes of being able to handle such a role, rushing for 581 yards and 4 touchdowns though his longest rush of the season was only 21 yards. Bush was, however, his usual threat out of the backfield in the passing game catching 73 passes but for only 417 yards and scoring twice. With a healthy McAllister returning to the starting role, the Saints will need a consistent rushing attack to open up the passing lanes for Brees' weapons.
The receiving corps was both a strength and a weakness for the Saints in 2007. Third-year WR Marques Colston continued to prove to be the steal of the century, notching career highs in catches (98), yards (1202) and touchdowns (11). Colston provided a good chunk of the Saints passing yardage. Veteran receiver David Patten showed flashes of his old self and stepped up to be a reliable no. 2 target with 792 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. It was in the red zone and down the middle of the field between the numbers where the Saints had their most issues. In the off-season, New Orleans acquired superstar TE Jeremy Shockey from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Shockey now gives Brees an added weapon the passing game, as well as a blocking back and red zone target.
In a word, the Saints defense was....well....bad. They finished 26th in total yards allowed per game, 13th in rushing defense and 30th in pass defense. They also allowed way too many big plays down the field, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for almost 250 yards per game and completing an NFL worst 32 touchdown passes with a 96.9 quarterback rating, also worst in the league. Additionally, they were not able to generate a consistent pass rush, finishing 19th in sacks with 32. To fix these problems, the Saints acquired LB Jonathan Vilma in a trade from the New York Jets and drafted DT Sedrick Ellis with the seventh overall pick out of USC. Addressing these defensive issues should help improve the Saints overall defensive presence in 2008.
Looking over their schedule, there really is no reason why the Saints cannot win the NFC South and be one of the top 4 teams in the conference. After all since the NFC South division was created in 2002, the team that has finished last the year before has gone on to win the division the very next year so logic says the Saints should win this division but we will have to see how everything pans out.
Overall prediction: 10-6, division champions