New Orleans Saints: Win Clinches Playoffs, So How Do They Match Up?

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IDecember 28, 2010

New Orleans Saints: Win Clinches Playoffs, So How Do They Match Up?

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    The New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons on ESPN's Monday Night Football, clinching a playoff berth and handing Atlanta its first home loss of the season. The Saints will enter the postseason looking to defend their Super Bowl XLIV title, after getting 302 yards and a fourth quarter touchdown from quarterback Drew Brees to beat Atlanta.

    With one week remaining the NFC playoff picture is coming together quickly: The Saints and Falcons are in the playoffs, while the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears have sewn up division titles. Only two playoff berths remain for the taking, and one will be determined on the field Sunday when the Rams face the Seahawks. In the meantime, let's look at how the Saints stack up against all possible playoff opponents.

Atlanta Falcons

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    The Saints proved they can beat Atlanta even inside the Georgia Dome with their victory Monday, ugly though it may have been. This New Orleans team is not the same one that lost to Atlanta 27-24 early in the season, but that does not mean the Falcons have no hope against New Orleans, either. Both sides have weaknesses the other can well exploit.

    Michael Turner ran for 114 yards when the Falcons beat New Orleans; he had only 48 on 17 carries last night. That is the key to slowing down Atlanta, and the Saints must find a way to do it again if the two teams meet in the playoffs.

    Drew Brees threw the game winning touchdown last night, but he also tossed a pair of interceptions. In fact, in the two contests with Atlanta this season, he now has four picks. Brent Grimes isn't getting any less aggressive or athletic on the outside, and both picks Monday went to defensive ends. If the Saints cannot find a way to exploit those mismatches, rather than fall victim to them, they cannot beat Atlanta again.

Chicago Bears

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    If the Bears win this week in Green Bay, they would be the prospective second round opponents for New Orleans, and New Orleans has a bitter taste still in its mouth after losing the 2006 NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field.

    To beat the Bears, a defense must be very opportunistic: Jay Cutler and his receivers give teams chances to earn takeaways both via interception and via fumbles after the catch, but unless those plays are made, the Chicago offense has some juice. The Saints have only nine picks this season, one away from the fewest in the NFL and a far cry from 2009, when the defense intercepted 26 passes and New Orleans finished third in the league in turnover differential. If they hope to beat Chicago on the road in the playoffs, they need to rediscover that kind of defensive tenacity.

    On the other side of the ball, though, the Saints should be able to pass pretty effectively against Chicago. Even with Julius Peppers in the fold, Chicago has had little luck generating substantial pass rush against great passing offenses, of which the Saints certainly have one. Brees should be able to hit Lance Moore and Marques Colston for some big plays in this potential matchup.

Green Bay Packers

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    Aaron Rodgers absolutely torched the Giants on Sunday, racking up 404 yards and four touchdowns seemingly without effort. He is among the league's elite quarterbacks, and though the Packers' playoff chances are by no means excellent, Rodgers could lead them all the way to the NFC Championship Game (the only place these two Wild Card contestants could meet) if they sneak in.

    The Saints can easily shut down the Green Bay ground game, but the passing game would pose serious issues. New Orleans likely needs to outscore Green Bay, a task much friendlier than trying to slow them down offensively. The Packers defense has holes, especially in the slot on passing downs and up the middle on rushing attempts. If New Orleans can gash Green Bay for some big gains even before accounting for Brees, they will be in good position to win. All in all though, this matchup is not kind to the Saints.

New York Giants

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    Justin Tuck is the rare defensive end for whom the style, handedness and general philosophy of the opposing passing offense just do not matter: He creates problems for everyone. Tuck should not be blamed for the Giants' back-to-back losses, as he has 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks during those games. The Giants now need help to reach the postseason, but if they do, and if they meet the Saints, Tuck will surely find his way to Brees at least once.

    Still, the Giants are rather plainly vulnerable elsewhere in their pass defense. The three-safety set they use to frustrate runs and short passes falls apart in the face of an open and inventive offense like those of Green Bay and Philadelphia, who scored a combined 83 points on them over the past two weeks, and that of the Saints. Brees and (if no one else) the running back tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush would easily create confusion or worse in that Giants cloud.

    Meanwhile, Eli Manning continues to turn the ball over too often, a weakness which the Saints must take advantage of. Even without Steve Smith, the Giants have sufficient explosiveness to make teams pay if defenders do not take the ball away more than once.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Eagles could be the best team in the NFC. They have some issues on defense, especially against the pass, but their overall offensive juggernaut and the explosiveness they get from DeSean Jackson and others on special teams make them the team to beat.

    For the Saints to beat them, they need to play like they played en route to the Super Bowl last season. Perhaps that seems obvious, but consider—the Eagles lack the ability to make consistent stops against the passing game. They rely mostly on big plays (i.e. turnovers) generated by Asante Samuel in order to keep opponents off the board. Meanwhile, Drew Brees (who last season took very good care of the football with 11 interceptions) already has 21 picks this year.

    For New Orleans to win the turnover battle, which is always the key for them to win the game, they must take better care of the football and keep the offense moving, thereby minimizing the impact of the stunningly athletic Eagles weapons.

St. Louis Rams

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    The Rams need a win over the Seahawks Sunday to crawl into the playoffs, and even if they do, their prize will be to play the red hot Saints and lose rather emphatically.

    Although Steven Jackson is capable of making progress on the ground against New Orleans, rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is not ready to lead his team against a defending Super Bowl champion with the sharpened focus of the playoffs on their side. The Rams do nothing especially well, which of course makes them much like the rest of the NFC West. They ought to be happy merely to make the playoffs, and even if they come in with a more positive attitude, the Saints should have little trouble disposing of St. Louis.

    Defensively, the Rams have improved by leaps and bounds this season, but they will not be able to slow down Brees unless the battery of running backs who ran for 125 yards on 28 carries during the last meeting between the two is suddenly shut down. That group kept the Rams honest that day so that Brees could toss three touchdown passes, and the Saints can do that again if they need to dispose of the Rams in the Wild Card round.

Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seahawks will go to quarterback Charlie Whitehurst in place of the injured Matt Hasselbeck this week in their effort to be the team hosting New Orleans in the first round, so the primary offensive onus will probably fall to Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks running backs. That should have happened weeks ago: Hasselbeck tossed 12 touchdowns but has 17 interceptions on the season.

    Assuming Seattle wins, the Saints have a slightly tougher first round match than they will if the Rams take the title. The Seahawks play in open air Qwest Field, which is a slight consideration for the usually indoor Saints. They also play a more bruising caliber of football on both sides, which is a more major issue.

    The Saints are still better and should win if this is the matchup they get, but Pete Carroll's team (with safeties Lawyer Milloy and Earl Thomas very capable of making plays to turn momentum fast) poses the greater obstacle for the defending champions.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    It is not unprecedented, but it would be a rare feat and a big newsmaker if three teams from the NFC South reached the playoffs. For that to happen, the Bucs need to beat New Orleans in Week 17 and have the Packers lose to Chicago.

    The outcome of this Week 17 matchup will tell us little, as the Saints (their place in the playoff hierarchy immutable and their veterans recovering from a long season filled with injuries for the team) are unlikely to show their full hand to Tampa. The Bucs might well win this contest, but the more telling game will remain the Oct. 17 shellacking the Saints laid on them in Tampa. In that contest, Chris Ivory ran for 158 yards against a defense that has struggled to stop the running game all season. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush back in the fold along with Ivory, the Saints would gash the Bucs in any contest they took especially seriously.

    Josh Freeman is a bull and he plays with fire, but under the pressure of the playoffs, he might find himself unequal to the task of managing the clock and taking care of the football with Saints defenders (presumably, given the team's desire to throw off his timing) flying all over the field. This game could only become a rematch in the NFC Championship Game, and that seems very unlikely, but if it happens, the Saints should beat Tampa Bay.