A Look Back and Forward on the New Orleans Saints' Incredible Season

Ed GrayContributor IJanuary 3, 2012

A Look Back and Forward on the New Orleans Saints' Incredible Season

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    Where does one even begin in describing one of the best offensive seasons for an NFL team ever? The only meaningful team-offensive record to barely survive 2011 was the Patriots' 589 points scored in 2007. In total, the Saints scored 547 points, which would have been good enough for third best in NFL history if not for the 560 points scored by the Packers.

    Even though the Patriots record still stands, the Saints set a new record for offensive yards gained by nearly 400 yards with 7,474. Also a new record was that 5,347 of them came from passing.

    The Saints led the NFL in converting on third downs 56.7 percent of the time, and averaged 26 first downs per game to set a new season record of 416.

    Let's look a little closer at who got the Saints here, and where they go from here in the playoffs.

Mark Ingram

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    Reggie Bush was just never able to settle into the feature back role in New Orleans, so the Saints looked elsewhere and drafted rookie Mark Ingram.

    Ingram has shown some potential, but like Bush, spent much of the season sidelined with injuries and will sit out the playoffs because of toe surgery.

    Still, he finished the year with a decent 3.9 yards per carry and 5 touchdowns. It will be interesting to see what kind of role Ingram makes for himself in future seasons.

Darren Sproles

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    Fortunately for Saints fans, they're not lacking for depth at running back. Darren Sproles was woefully unappreciated in San Diego, but no more. His versatility has quickly proven to be invaluable, even amongst the crowded Saints offense.  

    Few are talking about it given all the other offensive records the Saints broke this year, but Sproles actually set a single season record for all-purpose yards with 2,696 all purpose yards to go with 10 touchdowns. Derrick Mason previously set the record of 2,690 in 2000.

    What's particularly impressive about Sproles setting the record this year, is the NFL moved the kickoff up 5 yards to increase the number of touchbacks (concussions happen most frequently on kick returns).

    Sproles also led the NFL at his position with 86 receptions and no doubt Brees will be missing his favorite safety valve during the Pro Bowl. He may not make the big plays that shower players with national-level attention, but Sproles is definitely loved and appreciated in New Orleans.

    Despite all the times Sproles touched the ball this year, he did not fumble it once, nor did he miss a single play that I'm aware of due to injury.

Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory

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    Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory make up the remainder of the Saints rush offense which actually finished sixth in the NFL averaging 130 yards per game.  

    Ivory is averaging 5 yards per carry his last 4 games and scored their last game against the Panthers.

    Thomas actually played an entire 16 games this season for the first time in his career. It's still clear though that he is not trusted with the ball enough for more than 10-12 touches per game even though he has only lost one fumble this year.  Thomas is averaging an impressive 5.1 yards per carry and actually caught another 50 passes for 425 yards, both career highs.

    Whether these two can stay healthy enough to compliment Sproles and the Saints passing offense, will play an important role in how the Saints perform during the playoffs.

Jimmy Graham

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    Ok, enough with their run game, we all know why the Saints are returning to the playoffs again: their pass offense is the best in the NFL despite stiff competition from the Packers and Patriots.

    Jimmy Graham led the Saints with 99 receptions, third best in the NFL, to go with 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Before Rob Gronkowski caught his last couple passes, Graham had set a new record for receiving yards by a tight end and was just three receptions away from tying Tony Gonzalez's single season record of 102 set in 2004.

Marques Colston

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    The Saints receiver corp is stacked with talent, although with Brees at the helm that may not even be necessary.

    Leading at the wide receiver position this year was a healthy Marques Colston, who caught 80 passes for 1,143 yards and 8 touchdowns. Colston averaged 82 yards per game, only fumbled once, and got the Saints 55 first downs.

Lance Moore and Robert Meachem

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    Even with incredible reception totals for Sproles, Thomas, Graham, and Colston, Lance Moore managed to catch another 52 passes for 627 yards and 8 touchdowns.

    Robert Meachem caught another 40 passes for 620 yards and 6 touchdowns.  There are some teams who's top receivers have done less than the Saints second-string receivers.

Drew Brees

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    None of this would have been possible of course without an exceptional season from Drew Brees.  His QB rating of 110.6 may not be record setting thanks in part to Aaron Rodgers unprecedented 122.5, but his completion percentage of 71.2 is.

    His 468 completions will pass Payton Manning's previous record of 450 and by now everyone knows his 5,476 passing yards easily surpassed Dan Marino's record of 5,084.

    With only 14 interceptions to go with 46 touchdowns, Tom Brady's 50 touchdowns is the only record left for Rodgers and Brees to aim for next year.

    Despite all the playing time needed to throw 657 attempts, Brees only fumbled once and was sacked just 24 times.

    Whether Brees or Rodgers wins the NFL's MVP this year is irrelevant: they both had absolutely outlandish seasons.

Defense

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    So everyone knows by now just how powerful the Saints offense is, but their defense is quietly having a good season as well, especially of late.  They're allowing a respectable 21.2 points per game, but only 17.4 their last 5 games and that includes games against respectable offenses like the Lions, Falcons, and Panthers.

    Their rush defense has become particularly effective, allowing an average of only 87 yards their past 6 games.

    They may not be turning the ball over as much as say the Packers, but they're getting stops and getting opposing offenses off the field for Brees to work his magic.

    How far the Saints make it in the playoffs will likely come down to whether their defense can keep its momentum going long enough to win the Superbowl. 

Upsets

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    All NFL teams face the possibility of being beat by a team that is far worse on paper, but the Saints seem to have a particularly knack for it.  

    Besides their opening loss to the Packers, the Saints only other losses this year came against awful opponents like the Rams and Buccaneers.  They barely held off the struggling Titans 22-17 and of course there was their early exit in the playoffs last year against the Seahawks.

The Lions

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    The Saints first playoff game will be against the Lions at home.  Saints fans have to be feeling pretty confident about this one, given that they already beat the Lions easily 31-17 earlier this year.  

    The Lions offense may be looking hot, but their defense is not.  Matt Flynn torched them for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns without Greg Jennings just last week.  

    Still it is the NFL, and lord knows, the Lions are miles above the Rams, Buccaneers, or last year's Seahawks, so it's still certainly early to write them off.

    Matt Stafford was the only quarterback to actually top Brees with 663 pass attempts for 5,038 yards which was third best in the NFL. That may have had more to do with the Lions collapsing run game though.

The 49ers

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    The 49ers have been a surprisingly strong team this year, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

    Still, I think you could make the argument that the Saints may be the perfect team to beat them. Their defense has been susceptible to big pass plays and there's no one in the NFL better than Brees at that.

    The 49ers rush defense has been mind boggling effective, but that's not exactly a deterrent to Brees who is more than capable of winning through the air.

    If the Saints rush defense can force Alex Smith to beat them through the air, then I think the Saints should have an surprisingly easy win. The 49ers have been horrible in the red zone and I just don't see them beating Brees with field goals.

The Packers

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    The Saints' road to the Superbowl is definitely a rough one, presumably it won't happen without being able to beat the Packers, and obviously, that is not going to be easy.

    The Packers are the only other team in the NFL to average more points per game, and that's with Aaron Rodgers throwing much, much less than Brees.

    Compared to any one else, Brees' 46 touchdowns to 14 interceptions ratio is excellent, but compared to Rodgers' 45 to six, Brees is a turnover machine and that could very well be the difference in the game. The Packers' defense leads the NFL in creating turnovers with a total of 43, compared to the Saints' 23.

The AFC

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    If the Saints manage to win the NFC, especially if they beat the Packers, you've got to like their odds of winning the Superbowl.  

    The Ravens are a lot like the 49ers with tough defense but highly suspect offense, so I don't see the Saints having any more difficulty beating them.  

    The Steelers and Texans are really banged up.  The Broncos aren't going anywhere, and the Patriots' pass defense is a potential feasting ground for Brees.  

    Obviously that's a lot of speculating, but at this point that's all we can do.  Even if the Saints don't make it all the way, it was one memorable regular season.