5 Biggest Obstacles Facing New Orleans Saints in Brutal Final Stretch

Zane BrownContributor IIINovember 24, 2013

5 Biggest Obstacles Facing New Orleans Saints in Brutal Final Stretch

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    Pierre Thomas and the Saints have a challenging schedule in front of them.
    Pierre Thomas and the Saints have a challenging schedule in front of them.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    With a 9-2 record, the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints have accomplished a lot in 2013, but a number of challenging obstacles remain in their brutal final stretch.

    The Saints have already completed a season sweep of the rival Atlanta Falcons, and they embarrassed the Dallas Cowboys in prime time. New Orleans also knocked off the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers just a week ago.

    If the Saints are to reach the Super Bowl, however, the obstacles they will have to overcome in the coming weeks will dwarf the aforementioned accomplishments.

    Following are the five biggest obstacles standing in their way.

1. Remaining Schedule

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    Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have their hands full in the Saints' remaining five games.
    Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have their hands full in the Saints' remaining five games.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    The five remaining games on the Saints' schedule form a grueling gauntlet that no team in the NFL would wish for.

    The Saints' ultimate goal is, of course, to reach the Super Bowl. Therefore, their primary regular-season objective is to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, thus making their road to the Super Bowl much more manageable.

    Their remaining slate is far and away the most challenging obstacle standing in the way of that objective.

    For starters, the next opponent is the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks, who host New Orleans in a titanic matchup next Monday night. This contest may very well decide who gets the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but it won't be the end of the Saints' worries.

    Winning the division is usually the chief goal in the NFL, and the Saints have their hands full on that front as well. Garnering the top seed in the NFC may be necessary just to win the NFC South. Yes, the Carolina Panthers are that good, and New Orleans must face them just six days after the trip to Seattle.

    Cam Newton and company aren't just nipping at the Saints' heels anymore; they're breathing down their necks. Going into Sunday, the Panthers are just a game and a half back of New Orleans. The game against Seattle may hold tremendous value, but the two contests with Carolina are also highly important.

    In addition to the three matchups with these two NFC heavyweights, the Saints also must travel to St. Louis. This game is sandwiched between the two showdowns with the Panthers, which makes it a classic trap game. The Rams won't be pushovers themselves and will in all likelihood put forth their best efforts against the Saints.

    Last on the schedule is Tampa Bay. Yes, the Buccaneers are 2-8, but they've won two in a row. They also played New Orleans down to the wire in the first meeting between the two teams, and they'll look to finish their disappointing season on a strong note.

    The Saints' remaining schedule presents a tall task for sure, but if they can maneuver through each contest one at a time, they may be rewarded with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

2. Injuries

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    The Saints will need a healthy Darren Sproles in the coming weeks.
    The Saints will need a healthy Darren Sproles in the coming weeks.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The Saints' schedule is certainly challenging, but another obstacle that could hinder their success is injuries.

    New Orleans has already experienced bouts with the injury bug this season. Fortunately, it hasn't gotten out of hand, but one could argue that it has cost them some games.

    For instance, having safety Malcolm Jenkins and wide receiver Marques Colston certainly would be have been helpful in the tough road loss to the Jets.

    Also, tight end Jimmy Graham's services could have been a tremendous asset in the final minutes of the loss at New England, despite the fact that he was shut down for most of the game.

    More recently, starting safety Kenny Vaccaro and tight end Benjamin Watson missed the slugfest with the 49ers. Four days later, all-purpose back Darren Sproles and Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans were forced to sit for a key contest with divisional rival Atlanta.

    The Saints were able to emerge victorious in these contests, but these injured players are all major contributors, and any one of them could make a huge difference in the outcome of a game.

    Of course, football is a violent game, and injuries are a part of it. They can serve as a death knell for any team in the league, not just New Orleans, but that doesn't change the fact that injuries are a significant obstacle to the Saints achieving their full potential this season.

3. Carolina Panthers Defensive Front

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    Panther defensive end Greg Hardy has six sacks on the season.
    Panther defensive end Greg Hardy has six sacks on the season.Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    The opposing unit that stands to give the Saints the most problems down the stretch is without a doubt the Carolina Panthers defensive front seven.

    For starters, the Saints have to face them twice. Secondly, they're one of the top defensive lines in the league.

    The Carolina front line, led by ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, is quite possibly the best in the game. Johnson and Hardy have a combined 14.5 sacks this season.

    In addition, Luke Kuechly furthers establishes himself each week as one of the game's best linebackers. Kuechly has 53 solo tackles and three interceptions on the year and should get plenty of consideration for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

    Two weeks ago, the Panther defense held the 49ers to nine points on their home turf, and the front seven was largely responsible.

    When facing Carolina, the New Orleans offensive line must come prepared for a physical battle. They will have to resemble the unit that dominated the Cowboys and traded blows with the 49ers, more than the one that was pushed around by the Jets.

4. Seattle's CenturyLink Field

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    The home crowd is always lively at CenturyLink Field.
    The home crowd is always lively at CenturyLink Field.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    If the Saints don't advance to the Super Bowl, CenturyLink Field could prove to be their bane.

    A Saints win at Seattle next Monday could go a long way toward securing the top NFC playoff seed, but overcoming the Seahawks' tremendous home-field advantage is easier said than done.

    With the exception of the Mercedes Benz Superdome, CenturyLink Field is the loudest, most intimidating environment in the NFL. On top of that, the Seahawks are a very good football team.

    In addition, a New Orleans win next Monday may be necessary just to avoid going back to Seattle a second time.

    If the Saints don't get the No. 1 seed, they could still be forced to make a return trip to Seattle for the NFC title game. Such a scenario would be even more daunting than Monday night's challenge, and it's obviously in New Orleans' best interest to take care of business during the first go-round.

5. Pass Protection

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    The Saints must keep the number of hits on Drew Brees to a minimum.
    The Saints must keep the number of hits on Drew Brees to a minimum.Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    The Saints might can manage an injury or two to a safety or a running back, but they absolutely cannot abide losing quarterback Drew Brees. The cringe-worthy hits Brees has taken this season have caused more than a few Saints fans to express concern for his safety.

    Is New Orleans' pass protection terrible? No. If that were the case, it would be ranked first on this list and not fifth.

    The Saints' pass protection is, however, the shakiest it's been in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. With two upcoming games against the ferocious Carolina defense, improvement certainly wouldn't be a bad thing.

    The bone-jarring hit on Brees by 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks was not only controversial regarding the penalty, but it was also one of the worst hits Brees has taken during his tenure in New Orleans.

    All quarterbacks takes hits, and Brees understands that it's a part of the game. For his part, he does a fine job of managing the pass rush, as he moves well in the pocket. He's also proven that he can take a big shot and pop right back up. Asking him to take too many, though, could spell eventual trouble for New Orleans' Super Bowl hopes.

    The Saints must focus their efforts on improving their pass protection in the final stretch run of the season, or else their championship dreams could be carted off the field.

    The New Orleans Saints have enjoyed a fine season thus far, but more challenges await on the near horizon. If the Saints can successfully navigate these obstacles, they may find themselves in the NFC catbird seat come January.