New Orleans Saints: Is the 2011 Team a Legitimate Title Contender?

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New Orleans Saints: Is the 2011 Team a Legitimate Title Contender?
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On The B.S. Report, Mike Lombardi—the former Raiders and Broncos executive—intimated along with Bill Simmons that the New Orleans Saints are no better than an average team who will likely go no further than the divisional round of the playoffs. 

And that brought me to consider whether I—and all Saints fans—am delusional in believing this year's team actually has a shot to get to Indianapolis in February.

Of course, the assumption is that the Green Bay Packers, with their shiny and explosive offense and 9-0 record, are a lock to get back to this year's NFL title game. And if somehow not them, it would have to be the NFC East winner or the Chicago Bears. 

That is pretty much what Lombardi and Simmons concluded. And I think that is largely the perception that is hanging in the air among "NFL experts." Are they right? Are the Saints really the fourth or fifth best team in the NFC?

Much of what Lombardi said about the Saints, I agreed with—that Brees is better with a more balanced offense, the Saints are trying their best to keep their defense off the field and Jimmy Graham is a "blue-chip player." 

What I disagreed with was the assumption that New Orleans is not a contender in the NFC race. Heck, has any team played Green Bay better this season than the Saints? I think not. 

New Orleans can keep up on the scoreboard with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense. They can play with them in the kicking game, and ultimately their defense is fairly equal to Green Bay's. Of course, the weather could be an issue, just as it would be if the Saints had to play in Chicago. 

We've seen already this year that the Bears are a good matchup for the Saints—though since the Week 2 tilt, Chicago has improved greatly. And that leaves us with the NFC East winner. 

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That is likely to be either the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants. Both have enigmatic quarterbacks—though Eli Manning is, of course, proven as a Super Bowl champion QB. Tony Romo, on the other hand, not so much. 

Nonetheless, each team would present its challenges to the New Orleans Saints. The Giants' ability to rush the passer with just their front four would seem to lend itself quite nicely to slowing the Saints offense. And their big-play ability is scary. 

As for the Cowboys, DeMarco Murray—a guy I really wanted the Saints to draft instead of Mark Ingram—seems to be an unstoppable force on an offense loaded with talent. The Cowboys defense ain't half bad either. 

All these teams are good, and most are tough matchups for the Saints. But I almost failed to mention the San Francisco 49ers. Despite the Niners' struggles when they came into the Superdome in August for the preseason opener, I believe the Niners are the team that would present the most challenge to the Saints. 

The Niners have a great defense. They are crafty with their 3-4 attack and can get after the QB, but also solid on the back end. And offensively they will pound, pound, pound and pound some more, only to get a big play off play action. 

If you've conveniently blocked the Rams game out of your mind—and I don't blame you if you have—that is the formula that was so successful in giving the Saints fits. 

In other words, I really hope the Saints don't have to play the 49ers in the playoffs at any time. I would be comfortable, however, matching up with the other teams because I believe all those teams' flaws are greater and easier to attack. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The point is this: In the opinion of yours truly, the San Francisco 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC, and from there I really believe it's a crapshoot. From a betting perspective, I believe a matchup between any of the other playoff teams—likely Dallas, Giants, Packers, Saints and Bears—would be stay-away games. 

None of those games are ones for which a gambler would feel comfortable choosing a team—at least not without finding a way to hedge their bet. It's because those teams are so even. 

Headed into the Saints' bye, if you were to put a gun to my head and demand I make a prediction about the Saints' playoff chances, here's what I'd say. I'd say the Saints will win one playoff game and go out. 

But because I don't have a gun to my head, I allow myself this one little caveat. I still believe this team has a lot of room to improve and has the coaching and type of players who will improve. 

For that reason, I do not think it is fair to rule the Saints out. Did I mention this time last year everyone had ruled out the Packers?

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