How does a reigning Super Bowl champion enter the 2010 NFL Playoffs under the radar? By losing a whopping two more games than they did a year ago.
The New Orleans Saints enter the Wild Card round of the playoffs with a road trip to the undeserving Seattle Seahawks this weekend with hopes of making it to the next round and ultimately return to the Super Bowl.
So, what are their chances to repeat as champs? They lost two more games than they did last season, lost the division to the Atlanta Falcons and appear to no longer be America's darlings in their bid to be the first repeat champs since the New England Patriots.
But when Drew Brees is your signal caller, you still have hope.
Why They Will Repeat
As mentioned above, they still have that guy, you know, Drew Brees. He's thrown 22 interceptions on the season, but also managed to top 4,300+ yards for the fifth straight season while also tossing for 33 touchdowns. He's not quite as accurate or smooth as he was last season (11 picks), where he completed a staggering 70 percent of his passes, but he's still playing at an elite level.
On top of Brees, the Saints have a plethora of ways to kill you with several big-play receiving weapons, not to mention the emergence of the athletic rookie tight end Jimmy Graham.
Their coaching on both sides of the ball is still about as good as it gets, while all facets of their team are, at the very worst, average. They could use more explosive plays out of their special teams, but special teams and defense have both been at least adequate to this point.
Another thing working in their favor is the fact that their opening round game comes against the Seahawks, which makes it very likely the move on to the second round. The playoffs are all about advancing, and an easy (seemingly) game to kick off the tournament is a great way to start their run.
Why They Won't Repeat
Drew Brees has never been the problem. He's been the solution. And now more than ever he'll have to continue to be the solution, as New Orleans will be entering the playoffs without two key cogs in the running game (Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas).
The loss of these two backs puts an amazing amount of pressure on Brees, along with the offensive line now having to work harder to create holes for Julius Jones and Reggie Bush.
Sean Payton is a genius offensively, and he likely has a few tricks up his sleeve to help alleviate the pressure of a running game that is likely to struggle. But to give you a clearer picture of what Brees has backing him in his ground attack, he's entering this week's game with Jones, who hasn't had more than 70 yards rushing in a game all season and Bush, who has battled injuries all season and hasn't even scored a rushing touchdown.
On the flip side, the Saints haven't been themselves against the run, giving up the 16th most rushing yards per game during the regular season. That makes them middle of the pack, and that may not be good enough against a Chicago Bears team that now loves to run the ball (and can do it rather well), or an Atlanta Falcons team that presents Michael Turner as a familiar, yet huge problem.
Ultimately, the NFL Playoffs almost always come down to two things: running the ball and stopping the run. You need a back to grind games out when they're close and to run over tiring defenses to help open games up.
Unless Reggie Bush suddenly lives up to his potential overnight, or Julius Jones discovers a great running back within himself, this is going to be a huge problem for the Saints. The fact that they'll be unable to run effectively will also put extra pressure on Brees, which will lead to sacks and more interceptions.
In the end, when you can't run the ball, it also affects the amount of time you hold onto the ball, which will only hurt the Saints' already so-so rush defense.
They can still force turnovers and move the ball through the air with the best of them, but when you're playing odds, it doesn't look good for the Saints to move on past the Divisional round of the playoffs.