The 2011 season is coming to a close and the talk about playoffs has begun.
Every Saints fan remembers the 2009 season in which the New Orleans Saints won the franchise's first Super Bowl Championship, and all of Who Dat Nation is hoping for a repeat of that this season.
The Saints are certainly talented enough, boasting the league's best offense and a bend-but-don't-break defense. This Saints team has performed very well at times this year, but has also failed to show up in a few games.
Throughout the 2011 season, I have heard comparison of this Saints team with the one from 2009. The two teams are comparable in some areas, but for the most part are completely different.
Let's look at seven areas in which the 2009 Super Bowl Champion Saints and the 2011 Saints are unlike each other.
We might as well go ahead and face the obvious in this comparison.
The 2009 Saints defense was full of ball hawks. Wherever Darren Sharper was, there was normally a turnover. The Super Bowl Champion Saints forced a league leading 39 turnovers that year and had eight defensive touchdowns.
The 2011 Saints have forced 12 takeaways through 13 weeks of the NFL season. They only have two touchdowns throughout the entire year.
This year's Saints secondary has dropped interception after interception and pick sixes are a rarity. I remember watching the 2009 secondary get a pick six in what felt like every game. It seems like there was at least an interception every game. In 2011, it is almost a shock to see the Saints defense come away with a turnover.
The statistics between the two defenses are not that different. This year's team is 19th in points allowed and 27th in total yards allowed, where as the '09 team was 20th in points allowed and 25th in total yards.
Turnovers, obviously, make all the difference between the 2009 and 2011 Saints defenses.
The 2009 team was amazing on offense, but this year's team is much better.
Let's face it, the 2011 Saints have more weapons, and they are all more effective.
At the end of the 2009 season, the Saints had seven players that caught for more than 300 yards. Marques Colston was the leading receiver in '09 with 1074 yards. Devery Henderson was second with 804 yards and Robert Meachem was third with 722 yards. Pierre Thomas was the leading rusher with 793 yards on the season and a great 5.4 yards per carry average. Mike Bell and Reggie Bush added 654 and 390 more rushing yards, respectively.
Through Week 13 of the 2011 season, the Saints have seven players with more than 300 receiving yards. Tight end Jimmy Graham leads the team with 1046 yards. Colston is second with 721 yards in 10 games. Running back Darren Sproles has 522 receiving yards out of the backfield and adds 430 rushing yards at an astounding 6.8 yards a carry. Mark Ingram has 474 rushing yards and Thomas is up to 413 yards. Not to mention, running back Chris Ivory is still waiting to get on the field.
It is obvious that the Saints' weapons in 2011 are performing better than the ones in 2009. Which is hard to believe because the '09 team was nearly unstoppable.
However, the Saints are improved in nearly every skill position. Every single one of the Saints current running backs can carry the ball effectively. In 2009, Bush struggled carrying the ball between the tackles at times. The Saints were never sure what they would get out of Bush and Bell that year.
In 2011, Ingram, Sproles, Thomas, and Ivory are all very capable runners. The Saints know what they are getting with every one of them. Graham is a bigger, better Jeremy Shockey. Lance Moore is healthy in 2011 and a constant contributor. Henderson and Meachem are still doing what they do best, reeling in the deep throws for long touchdowns.
As scary as the '09 team was offensively, the Saints team this year is even scarier.
At first glance, it would seem as if the 2009 Saints team had a tougher schedule.
According to the NFL's strength of schedule for each year, the '09 team's path was much tougher. Going into the 2009 NFL season the Saints had the eighth toughest schedule. Their opponents combined winning percentage was .557, where as this year's Saints team is facing a schedule of opponents with a combined .508 winning percentage. The 2011 Saints are facing the NFL's 13th toughest schedule.
However, these strength of schedule percentages are based on the previous year's records. That is not very accurate. Let's look at it from a different perspective.
I took every opponent from the Saints 2009 season and figured out their combined winning percentage. That figure came out to .426. I then looked at the 2011 Saints schedule and took their opponent's current records to develop a winning percentage. That figure came out to .443. That is still much less than it was expected to be, but higher than the 2009 Saints' schedule.
If statistics do not prove it, then we can look at the teams the 2011 Saints have played.
They opened the season in Lambeau against the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers, and lost by eight points. They beat the AFC South leading Texans, and embarrassed potential playoff teams in the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions. The 2011 Saints have also won tough games at Atlanta and at Carolina.
Both teams played similar schedules, but the 2011 Saints have played one with a little more competition than the 2009 team.
The 2011 Saints have proved that they are a much different team on the road than at home.
All three of the Saints' losses this year have come on the road, where as the 2009 Saints only lost one road game, and that road game was one in which they sat most of their starters.
This year's Saints went to St. Louis and fell asleep. They got dominated the entire game, and that was only two weeks after going to Tampa Bay and losing a close game. The other Saints' road loss came at the beginning of the year against the Green Bay Packers.
It seems as if the Saints play down to their competition on the road, and that spells disaster. This team cannot afford to do that. They need to take a lesson from the '09 Saints and win on the road more.
The Saints have failed to rush for 100 yards only four times this season, and it is not a coincidence that three of those times were on the road. The Saints also have a -6 turnover ratio on the road this year, compared to a turnover ratio of +4 at home.
In 2009, the Saints' turnover ratio was actually better on the road than at home. They earned a +6 ratio on the road and a +5 ratio at home.
Luckily, there is still a portion of the 2011 season left, and the Saints have a chance to prove themselves on the road.
The 2011 Saints, overall, are much better on special teams than they were in 2009.
The 2011 team is in the top 10 in most special teams categories. They are first in touchbacks, 49, second in average net yards per punt, 46.2, seventh in average kick return yards, 25.9, and eighth in kick returns for more than 20 yards, 25.
In 2011, the Saints have only allowed 15 punt returns for 84 yards. Both of those numbers are first in the NFL, and that also means that the Saints are only allowing 5.6 yards per punt return.
The 2009 Saints finished the season with 29 touchbacks and that was good for second in the NFL. Just a side note here, but the reason for the huge difference in the amount of touchbacks is because of the NFL rule change this past offseason. Teams now kickoff from the 35 yard line, where as in previous years they kicked from the 30 yard line.
In 2009, the Saints were fourth in the NFL with a 24.4 yard kick return average. They also only allowed 25 punt returns that year. Other than those three areas, the Saints were pretty bad on special teams. They allowed 358 punt return yards on 25 punts, which averages out to 14.3 yards per punt return. The '09 Saints also averaged 36 net yards per punt, and that was good for 29th in the league.
The Saints are playing lights out on special teams this year. The Saints' special teams had been a weak area for most of the Sean Payton era, but in 2011, the Saints have fixed that problem and it is a major difference between the 2009 and 2011 teams.
The 2009 Super Bowl Champion Saints were one of the deepest teams I have ever seen play, and that is what made them so good.
They had three good running backs, three consistent wide receivers, and an offensive line that played well despite losing All-Pro left tackle Jammal Brown before the season started.
The defense was able to play well in the Super Bowl, even without starting defensive end Charles Grant. There was a new injury almost every week in the 2009 season, but the Saints just plugged in another guy and they got the job done. I strongly believe that the Saints depth in '09 propelled them to the Super Bowl.
I also feel strongly that this year's team is deeper than the 2009 team.
The Saints do not have three good running backs this year, but they have four great ones. Ivory, Ingram, Thomas, and Sproles can all run between the tackles, burst around the edge, and catch the ball out of the backfield. The Saints have four fantastic receivers and any one of them can hurt an opposing team on any day.
They have a tight end that is playing at an All-Pro level. The Saints offensive line has lost two Pro-Bowl players in Olin Kreutz and Jon Stinchcomb, but has played some amazing football, especially as of late.
The defense has played well throughout the year, and sometimes without the heart and soul of their defense, Jonathan Vilma. They have been able to recover from early injuries and now seem to be playing their best football.
The greatest part about this Saints roster is that they are just about completely healthy, and everyone on the team is hungry for another Super Bowl. Combine that with the talent on the team, and that equates to great odds for the 2011 Saints.
The best thing about the 2011 season is that the Saints are underdogs.
All season they have been coasting by under the radar. Not many people are talking about this Saints team. In 2009, the Saints were competing for an undefeated season and once that was over they coasted to the NFC No. 1 seed.
This year, the Packers and 49ers are ahead of the Saints in the NFC and some people do not believe that the Saints could get by either one of those teams in the playoffs.
Everyone has noticed the Saints offense and Drew Brees' amazing year, but they seem to have forgotten about the Saints' eighth ranked rushing attack. They do not understand that the Saints defense is right where it wants to be. The special teams in New Orleans is probably the best overall group in the NFL.
We can't forget about the coaching staff either. Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and company are among the best in the National Football League and have their team ready to compete deep into the playoffs.
Some will say that the Saints are not getting the recognition that they deserve, or that people are underestimating the team from the Big Easy. In 2009, everyone knew how good the Saints were and people were watching every single week, waiting for the team to mess up.
That has not been the case in 2011, and I believe that is exactly where Payton, Brees, and the New Orleans Saints want to be.