Tell owner Tom Benson to break out his fleur-de-lis umbrella and fire up the New Orleans jazz band, because the Saints will be marching to Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.
And the return to Big D for this season’s big game will be a homecoming of sorts for coach Sean Payton, who served as the Cowboys’ assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach from 2003-05, as well as quarterback Drew Brees, who led Austin’s Westlake HS to a 16–0 record and Texas 5A state title at the old Texas Stadium as a senior in 1996.
The stage is set for Payton and Brees to lead the Saints on another Super Bowl run. Following a Week 10 bye, New Orleans hosts inconsistent Seattle, travels to down-and-out Dallas, goes to “Who Dat?” little brother Cincinnati and hosts upstart St. Louis. Those are four very winnable games for a team that currently sits at 6–3 overall with a 3–1 mark in the NFC South. If all goes well, the final three weeks of the season — at Baltimore, at Atlanta and Tampa Bay — will determine whether the Saints enter the postseason with a first-round bye or a wild card berth.
Led by Payton and Brees — who are slowly evolving into the NFC’s version of Belichick and Brady — this year’s team has fought through injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, along with All-Pro safety Darren Sharper. The second-half return of all three playmakers should bring back the Saints’ Super Bowl swagger.
Expect another Bourbon Street bash that becomes an extended Mardi Gras party — with Payton calling the shots (onside kick to open the second half, anyone?), Brees leading the troops and aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams unleashing end Will Smith, tackle Sedrick Ellis, middle ’backer Jonathan Vilma and Sharper.
Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Nobody — again.
– Nathan Rush
Ever since John Elway sailed into the sunset following his second straight Super Bowl win, we’ve had more Brett Favre “retirements” than repeat champions. In the last decade, only the 2005 New England Patriots have managed to pull a back-to-back. It’s more likely for a team to miss the playoffs the year after a Super Bowl win than it is to repeat. Throw in the fact that the Saints haven’t really played all that well this season, and the answer is simple: Enjoy the Vince Lombardi Trophy while you can, Saints fans — it ain’t going to be in your possession much longer.
The Saints have been able to camouflage their deficiencies for much of the season. But they’ve also revealed some clear weaknesses, starting with, of all places, the quarterback position. No player is more important to his team’s success than Drew Brees, and Brees has been a mere shadow of his 2009 self. In tossing 12 picks through nine games, Brees has already exceeded last year’s total. In the Saints’ three losses this year, Brees has thrown an alarming nine interceptions after throwing 11 all of last season. Now comes word that Brees may be battling a fracture and a torn meniscus in his knee, a possibly crippling blow to a team that lives and dies with its quarterback.
The Saints are still piling up yardage, but they’re not converting their opportunities. After leading the NFL in scoring in 2009, averaging 31.9 points per game, the Saints are scoring at a pedestrian 22.3 clip. Their rushing attack (93.7 ypg) is one of the NFL’s worst, and unless Brees starts clicking — an unknown given his output thus far and his questionable health — this offense is out of options.
Last season, the Saints rode homefield advantage in the playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl. This time around, with a closing trio of games against Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the Saints will struggle merely to make the postseason.
Who dat say the Saints won’t repeat? Me, dat’s who.
Halfway through the season, who among us would’ve guessed the Kansas City Chiefs would be 5-3 while the Dallas Cowboys would be 1-7? Who had the Eagles in contention in the NFC with Michael Vick at the helm? How about Darren McFadden and Jason Campbell resurrecting their careers while reviving a franchise in Oakland?
It has, without a doubt, been a season of surprises. New stars (Sam Bradford, Dez Bryant, Ndamukong Suh) are emerging. A few old ones (Brett Favre, Randy Moss) look ready to bow out.
Here’s a look back at the wild first-half, and a sneak preview at what might happen the rest of the season:
Best team: The New York Giants
It’s hard to argue with the stats that say they are No. 1 in defense and No. 2 in offense. And to show their physical nature, the Giants (6-2) are No. 3 in rushing and No. 2 stopping the run. They’ve got one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushes (they’ve already knocked out five quarterbacks this season), and they have a seemingly unstoppable passing attack. Yes, the Steelers are close, and they might end up having the better defense. But the Giants’ offense is way ahead of Pittsburgh’s. They’ve won five straight and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.
Worst team: The Carolina Panthers
Yeah, the Cowboys are getting blown out lately, and the Buffalo Bills are 0-8, but the Panthers (1-7) have scored only 88 points this season. That’s 11 points per game. That’s not an NFL offense. The San Francisco 49ers should be ashamed for losing to them and allowing quarterback Matt Moore to throw for more than 300 yards. This is a dismal group with no quarterback, little hope, and likely facing a coaching change after the season.
Half-season MVP: QB Philip Rivers, Chargers
His team is 4-5, so he may need to win a few more games to make a real push for this award. But if he does get the Chargers to the playoffs, it’s going to be hard to overlook his eye-popping numbers. Despite the holdout of his best weapon, receiver Vincent Jackson, and the loss of running back LaDainian Tomlinson from his offense, Rivers has a completion percentage of 65.3, and he’s thrown for 2,944 yards and 19 touchdowns. That’s a ridiculous pace for an NFL record 5,233 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Coach of the Half Year: Mike Tomlin, Steelers
So many coaches are doing nearly as much with less — like Raheem Morris in Tampa and Todd Haley in Kansas City, but try this experiment: Take any other starting quarterback away from any other team for the first four games of the season and see what happen. The odds are that team wouldn’t still be 6-2. And when you consider that Tomlin was down to his fourth quarterback for a time and had to navigate his team through the entire Ben Roethlisberger mess all offseason, too, it’s mighty impressive that the Steelers haven’t come apart at the seams.
Defensive Player of the Half Year: LB Clay Matthews, Packers
His 10.5 sacks not only make him clearly the league leader, but it’s a half-sack more than he had all of last season. He’s spread out the sacks, too. He’s only gone sackless twice in eight games. He’s clearly the best player on his own defense, and his 62-yard interception return against the Cowboys last Sunday night sealed this deal.
Rookie of the Half Year: QB Sam Bradford, Rams
With all due respect to Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys dangerous receiver/returner, there is no harder position for a rookie to play than quarterback. And it’s not even close. Yet Bradford, with a team that won one game a year ago, has already won four times and has completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,674 yards and 11 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. Those would be good numbers for any quarterback. They’re remarkable for a rookie. And they’re a miracle for a rookie on a bad team. Of course, thanks to him, the Rams are now pretty good.
Biggest surprise: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Several experts looked at the Bucs in the offseason and saw the worst roster in the NFL. Morris, their coach, saw a contender. He may not be right in the end, but he’s been right so far. They’re 5-3 thanks to their Comeback Kid at quarterback, Josh Freeman. Morris has patched together a running game, too, and engineered some pretty impressive wins. It’s hard to imagine they have staying power this season, but the future is brighter than it seemed.
Biggest disappointment: The Dallas Cowboys
Remember when Jerry Jones was thinking they’d be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their own building this February? Now they’re 1-7 and Jones was the first owner to fire his coach, axing Wade Phillips and promoting offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. They’ve lost quarterback Tony Romo and, from the way it looked the last two games, they’ve lost their heart, too.
Coach on the Hot Seat: John Fox, Panthers
See the “Worst team” category for why. The good news for him is he’s extremely well-respected, and it’s doubtful he’ll be unemployed for long.
Biggest gamble: Titans claiming WR Randy Moss
Well, they do have experience with Pacman Jones, so they know a little about how to deal with bad guys and chemistry problems. But boy, what a risk! The Titans are 5-3, sitting atop the NFC South, seemingly building something, and now they bring in a guy who’s clearly still in his “angry man” mode. Moss was discarded by New England and Bill Belichick, who is supposedly better than any coach in the NFL at handling problems. And he was drop-kicked by Minnesota and their coach, Brad Childress, who is desperately trying to hang on to his job. If they didn’t want him, don’t you have to ask yourself if he’s really worth a third chance? Really, best of luck to you, Jeff Fisher. And to your team.
Revised Super Bowl prediction: Ravens over Packers
No reason to revise it, actually, since that’s what I predicted in the summer. Yes, I think the Steelers and Giants are the best teams in the NFL right now. But the Ravens (6-2) and the Packers (5-3) are right behind them. I’m still confident that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will get on a roll, and I love what I’ve seen out of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers so far. I won’t back down from my pick now.
Team of the Week: The Browns
A week ago, I wrote that all was in proper order in NFL-land; the Patriots sat in their once-customary spot atop the league. Yesterday, though, the Browns made the P-men look like, well, the Browns, dominating my anointed front-runners 34–14 in a breathtaking display of physical football. Jim Brown himself would have been proud. Peyton Hillis, a 240-pound battering ram, was yesterday’s breakout star, gashing the helpless Patriots front for 184 yards rushing and two touchdowns. In the ongoing subplot with these two teams, estranged pupil beat arrogant mentor, as Eric Mangini outdueled his former boss, Bill Belichick. “We were making plans for the summer,” Mangini joked about yet another terse postgame encounter with Belichick. It may be too late for the 3–5 Browns to mount a playoff run, but this team is well suited for the role of spoiler. “There isn’t one team in this league that we don’t think we can beat,” said do-it-all wideout Josh Cribbs.
Are the Giants the Best Team in Football?
No, but they’re the best team in the NFC, and that could get them a spot in the Super Bowl, where, as the G-men proved a few years ago, anything is possible. The Giants dismantled the outmanned Seahawks 41–7, quieting the crowd at normally rollicking Qwest Field and sending a clear signal to the NFC that they’re the team to beat. In winning five straight, the Giants have averaged 32.2 points per game. They lead the NFL in total defense, allowing 250.6 yards per game, and are second in total offense, averaging 401 yards per game. “Things are going well right now,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “But we’ve just got to make sure we stay committed to getting better.” That’s a good plan, considering that the Giants’ two losses have come by wide margins against AFC hopefuls the Colts and Titans. Not a good sign come February.
The Vikings Aren’t Dead Yet, and Neither Are the Chargers
Just as we were ready to dump the final shovels of dirt on the Vikings’ season and the Brad Childress regime, the Vikes climbed out of their casket to steal a 27–24 overtime win from the Cardinals, as Brett Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards. Asked if he was playing to save Childress’ job, Favre said, “I felt like I was playing for mine. I’m just being honest. ... Have I always got along with my coach, head coach, quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator? No. Do I always agree with the plays that are called? No. Why should that factor into me wanting to be the best player I can be?” So was this game a season-saver, or merely a temporary reprieve? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the Chargers — so full of talent and promise — head into their bye week with their second straight comeback win over an AFC South foe, beating the Texans 29–23 on the strength of a virtuoso four-touchdown performance from quarterback Philip Rivers. The 4–5 Chargers have the luxury of playing in the wide-open AFC West. They’re clearly the most talented team in the division, and they’re starting to play like it.
The Cowboys, On the Other Hand…
Jerry Jones, it’s high time you put poor Wade Phillips out of his misery. And ours, too. There’s nothing more pathetic right now than Phillips’ sideline demeanor — the slumped shoulders, the bewildered expression, the appearance of utter helplessness. As painful as it is to watch, hearing Phillips try to explain things in his postgame press conference is even worse. I’d rather watch someone kick a puppy. And hearing Cris Collinsworth dissect the Cowboys’ utter awfulness in excruciating detail during their 45–7 loss to the Packers doesn’t help diminish the sympathy pains. By all accounts, Phillips is a nice guy and a good coordinator. Let’s not let this debacle extend for so long that it permanently ruins a decent man. “There are a lot of people here who are certainly going to suffer and suffer consequences,” Jones said ominously. Jerry, we’ve all suffered enough, Phillips included. Make the move.
The Raiders Are Relevant Again
When the Titans toyed with the Raiders in Week 1, Titans fans didn’t get very excited; it was only the Raiders, after all. In retrospect, that win is looking like the highlight of the Titans’ season. The Raiders continued their remarkable run to relevance yesterday, beating their old rivals the Chiefs 23–20 in overtime in one of the day’s most entertaining games. The 5–4 Raiders are in the thick of the AFC West race, along with their former brethren in ineptitude, the 5–3 Chiefs. The Raiders have averaged 37.5 points in their last four wins and are pounding opponents with a reinvigorated running game. Quarterback Jason Campbell is surfing a positive wave right now, having thrown five TD passes to one interception during the Raiders’ three-game winning streak. “It wasn’t the way we draw it up but it was the way it was supposed to be,” coach Tom Cable said of the sometimes-sloppy win over the Chiefs. “We hung in there, fought, hung in there, fought, got a chance, made a couple of plays, made two kicks and now we’re all happy. It's a great job by our team of really pulling together.” Let’s see if it lasts.