At the beginning of the 2012 season, I looked at the schedule that the Saints had and came to the terms that it was very manageable. 7 wins and 9 losses later, and close to the bottom of the NFC South, I stand here, both corrected and more open-minded about what is to come. Today I will be assessing the 2013 Saints non-divisional opponents and how the Saints stack up with them.
Since the Saints played the NFC East this past year and the NFC North the year before, that leaves the NFC West. The NFC West is rapidly becoming among the best divisions in all of football for good reason. The biggest test for the Saints is to see how they stack up with 2 super bowl contending teams in the Seahawks and the 49ers and 2 quality(ish) teams in the Cardinals and Rams.
49ers: The Saints got beat by the 49ers last year on the back of 2 bad pick-sixes by Brees. Since then, the 49ers went out and went big in free agency getting several top notch free agents such as Anquan Boldin and Nnamdi Asomugha along with other average players. The biggest test here is definitely on the defensive side of the ball for the Saints. The addition of Anquan Boldin was HUGE for the 49ers in the fact that they now have a great receiver that can go up and get the ball and strong-hand it away from the defender no matter how good the coverage is. Sure, the Asomugha signing hurt the team, but the Boldin signing on top of all the offensive talent they already possess clearly takes over priority because Brees and the Saints have proven they can score on the 49ers "elite" defense. That said, I'm not trying to give the offense an excuse. The offense has been the anchor of this team since the arrival of Payton and Brees in 2006, and the status quo hasn't changed since then. The Saints will need to use every possible matchup imaginable to expose a 49er defense that, in my opinion, was overrated for much of the season last season.
The Saints win if they can effectively contain Kaepernick and cover the WRs well.
Seahawks: With the 49ers winning the West last season, I didn't think they were the best team. The Seahawks are the real deal. With the best defense in all of football as far as I'm concerned, they also possess an explosive offense. The test here is going to have to be for the offense on a good day. The last statement is that of a severe understatement as the New Orleans and Seattle game will likely be played in Seattle since the last regular season game between the 2 teams was in the Superdome, and we all know how the 12th Man of Seattle is. Brees and company are going to have to play one of the better games of 2013, and the season hasn't started yet. Just like above, I'm nowhere near giving the defense an out. The defense is going to have to step up their game 100 fold from last season's atrocity to compete for a Super Bowl. With the combination of Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch, and all the other weapons the Seahawks have, taking them down will be a chore. The addition of Keenan Lewis and Victor Butler will help out, but that still doesn't guarantee a turned around defense.
The Saints win if they can effectively keep the defense in check and get good pressure on Wilson whilst also shutting Harvin down.
Cardinals: Not much to say about the Cardinals except for the fact that they beat the Saints the last time the two teams met. Although I don't think they are a good team yet, I do believe in the Cardinals and their turnaround. Coach Arians is a good coach, and he is building the franchise around him using a winning culture and attitude; an attitude that the Cardinals have seemingly lacked since Kurt Warner departed. The signing of Carson Palmer and others are, in my mind, a step in the right direction for a franchise that is finding its way with a new coach. There are a couple concerns that I do have though with this team. The Saints will have to be wary of the Carson Palmer/Larry Fitzgerald combination. While Palmer is aging, I do believe he is the best Quarterback the Cardinals have had since Warner left and Larry Fitz is Larry Fitz. The other concern I have is with Patrick Peterson, both as a punt/kick returner and a cornerback. The Saints receivers will have to be on their game to get passed Peterson.
The Saints win if they can get good pressure on Palmer and that below-average offensive line while doing their best to minimize Larry Fitz' yardage.
Rams: The Rams. This is an interesting matchup to say the least. The Rams may be the sleeper team in the NFC, potentially making the playoffs as the third NFC West team and second wild-card. With the Rams and Jeff Fisher, who is an amazing coach in his own rite. Fisher has built around himself a talented team on Defense, and somewhat of a peculiar offense behind former No. 1 pick, Sam Bradford. The offense isn't really talented, but it can make plays on you. With the departure of Steven Jackson (who nobody cares about anymore) and Danny Amendola, the Rams are going to have to do some serious searching for replacements for the two playmakers. Overall, I'm not too worried about the Rams much at this point, but it's almost a foregone conclusion that they are going to draft a WR and a RB (Possibly Tavon Austin and Eddie Lacy or Montee Ball) so there is some skepticism as to how good they will really be.
The Saints win if they get good pressure on Bradford, forcing him to make mistakes.
The Saints have to go up against an indifferent AFC East division this year. The reason I say indifferent is because with 2 of the 4 teams in the division, you don't really know what you get.
Patriots: Let's start with the clear-cut favorite to win this division every year. Tom Brady has been the mainstay in this division since he won the starting job for the Patriots. The last time the Saints played them in the regular season, however, the Saints drilled the Patriots on the way to winning the Super Bowl. The two teams are very different now, however. One has to wonder how a defensive coordinator ever gets the best of Tom Brady. Now, the Patriots are more potent than ever, featuring a pretty decent run-game and a dual-TE system that Tom Brady loves to go to. No linebacker can cover Hernandez or Gronk, so I figure the Saints are going to have to use more nickel defense when both of the TEs are in there. With the new addition of Amendola, the Patriots also have a more injury-prone Wes Welker-type player. As far as wideouts go, however, the Patriots lack in talent, so I figure that will be more of a non-factor. As far as their defense go, it's about on par with the rest of the league and is more than capable of being scored on, so I'm not too worried about the Saints offense.
The Saints win if they can shut down Gronk and Hernandez.
Dolphins: What a team this is shaping up to be. With all the additions Mr. Ireland has made this offseason, I think they could make a legitimate push to win the AFC East if they have the right coaching in place. Of course they also have to have quality Quarterback play from the second-year signal caller in Ryan Tannehill. Ireland has provided weapons for the Quarterback though, adding Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller, and a couple other very capable players in free agency. The defense of the Saints will have a task on their hands on containing this young and talented offense. Flipping over to the defensive side of the ball, Miami features a couple big free agents they acquired this offseason lead by Danelle Ellerbe, formerly of the Ravens. The Dolphins defense has never been "bad", but it has never really been in that upper echelon of defenses, either. While they give up a lot of total yardage, the majority of that is in passing yards. They ranked in the top 10 in points allowed with under 20 PPG, and 13th in rush yards given up with 108. What this tells me that while they are easy to pass on, every possession counts.
The Saints win if they can keep score in abundance and keep the offense in check.
Bills: I don't really know what to say about the bills. A couple years ago they seemed to get everything in order on their way to a 5-0 start and looking like one of the better teams in the league. Since then, they have almost completely de-railed. Signing Kolb in the offseason, it seems this team has either a sense of patience by signing somebody that's not that good in order to increase their draft order for next draft, or a case of mental illness. It's weird that I'm saying this, but the Saints' defense should have no problem keeping this offense in check with the exception of CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson. This RB tandem is one of the more dangerous One-Two punches in the league because it features both speed and power, and the Saints' run defense has been both porous and non-existent at times. The defense of the Bills is an underachieving group also, ranking toward the bottom in total defense.
The Saints win if the defense can play a good game.
Jets: What a joke. Seriously, this team has got to be the worst in all of football, regardless of what the draft says. The Chiefs are at least more talented than what their draft stock suggests. The Jets have little talent at almost every position, and they are rumored to trade their best player in Darelle Revis away, making them even worse. The Saints won't have to do much of anything to beat the Jets pretty handily. Just don't get complacent and play New Orleans Saint football.
The Saints win if they show up to the stadium. (Seriously, I'm almost guaranteeing this victory for the Saints).
Bears: This team is very talented, and when they're on, they can hang with anyone of the elite teams in the NFL. This will probably be one of the bigger tests for the Saints in the 2013 season. With a shored up offensive line aided by the signing of Jermon Bushrod, the Bears will likely be looking to play a complete game against the Saints, utilizing Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall in abundance. The defensive side of the ball is a group of very talented ball-hawks lead by Charles Tillman. Drew Brees will have to be in top form in this game to get by the veteran defense with a "W". While I'm not too worried about the offense, I'm even more worried about the defense in this game because of how talented the Bears are.
The Saints win if they can shut down the Bears receivers.
Cowboys: Another team that is the poster-child for underachieving. All appropriate Romo jokes aside, the Cowboys are a talented team, they just can't win when it counts largely in part due to Tony Romo (good to note that they were only a couple yards away from winning the division last season). The Cowboys always (or at least in recent memory) seem to give the Saints a great game, dating back to the 2009 season when they spoiled the perfect record. The Saints can never be overly complacent about the Cowboys because the team is capable of playing lights out, just not on a consistent basis. Their defense ranked 19th last year with Rob Ryan as their DC and little talent due to injury. The test for the Saints in this game will again be the defense because the Cowboys offense is very talented. Rob Ryan will hopefully be looking to exact revenge on his former team for using him as a scapegoat, so I'm pretty fired up for this matchup. Although Monte Kiffin brings a very good resume to the table when it comes to coaching defenses, so the offense will once again have to be on their game to come away with a win here. The past 2 times the Saints and Cowboys have played each other, there have been HUGE leads blown by the Saints. That's a cardinal error when playing a talented team that's capable of coming back.
The Saints win if they can keep a lead and close out the game with good defense.
The Saints may have the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL next season, and I'm worried about how the games are going to be lined up. Would love to avoid a gauntlet of great teams.
How do you see the Saints matching up with all of their opponents for the 2013 season? I'd love to hear your thoughts!