The Saints haven’t proven themselves this season against contenders

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

After falling at home to the San Francisco 49ers in a shootout, something feels off with the New Orleans Saints. It feels like they’re still unproven.

There’s no doubt about who is the best team in the NFC South this year. The New Orleans Saints clinched the division on Thanksgiving night by defeating the archrival Atlanta Falcons in their own building, eliminating the Dirty Birds from playoff contention in the process. New Orleans was the first team to punch its ticket into the NFC playoffs, but why don’t we feel ecstatic about it?

In their biggest game of the season thus far, the Saints dropped a barn burner at home to the San Francisco 49ers on a last-second field goal off the toe of Robbie Gould. Few teams win in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome not wearing black and gold, much less a good, old-fashioned southern shootout. Yet, Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers beat the Saints at their own game.

With that loss, the NFC South Champion Saints fell to 10-3 on the year and in third place in the NFC playoff standings, behind top-seeded San Francisco (11-2) and the Green Bay Packers (10-3). Few teams in the NFL are harder to beat at home than the Saints, but that’s now two defeats in the Superdome this year for Sean Payton’s team. Something feels a tad off with this team now.

If you give the Saints a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, you have to love their chances of getting to the Super Bowl. However, it’s also been 10 years since New Orleans got to play for a Lombardi Trophy. Now, it looks like the Saints will be forced to play on the road or — God forbid — outside in the NFC playoffs. To date, the Saints have one road playoff victory as a franchise.

But what’s off with this team? They have one of the best quarterback/head coach combos in NFL history in Drew Brees and Payton. Their pass rush is phenomenal, led by Cameron Jordan. You can trust the Saints on special teams with savvy veterans like punter Thomas Morstead, kicker Wil Lutz and the versatile Taysom Hill. Of course, they have an elite wide receiver in Michael Thomas.

But at the end of the day, this more likely than not will be the Saints’ year to get back to the Super Bowl. Hopefully, for Who Dat Nation, their inevitable postseason defeat in January won’t be as gut-wrenchingly painful as the last two. We’ll spare reminding them of two of the worst moments in franchise history, as these were the two most talked-about losses of 2017 and 2018 easily.

What it really comes down to is this: This team doesn’t have the tenacity to win multiple playoff games in the physical NFC and get to the Super Bowl. It’s the same reason we shouldn’t trust the Packers to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 10 years either. Both of these teams are too finesse to beat the likes of San Francisco and the Seattle Seahawks in January.

Sure, we can say that the Saints beat Seattle on the road earlier this season, but that was with Teddy Bridgewater filling in for Brees. The Seahawks had very little tape of Bridgewater in the Saints offense to get ready for them. But it was a solid victory for the Saints nonetheless. They played great football with Bridgewater filling in for Brees, going 5-0 without their greatest player.

But if you look at the games that Brees has started, this is a completely different team. The Saints are only 5-3 in games Brees has been under center for the Saints, with losses to the Los Angeles Rams, Falcons and now the 49ers.

Atlanta is a huge rival, so divisional losses happen, even to a bad Falcons team. But losing to physical, run-the-ball-down-your-throat teams like the Rams and the 49ers are when they’re playing their best football. That’s a problem and one the Saints have yet to solve.

Looking at their final three regular-season games, we could see the Saints going 3-0, but if they’re going to drop a game, it will be on the road to another physical, power-running team in the Tennessee Titans up in Nashville. Derrick Henry is battling through injuries, but the Titans’ bell-cow back is having a monstrous season for Tennessee, easily his best since winning the Heisman.

So we’re likely looking at the Saints getting to 12-4. That’s a phenomenal record, but one that probably won’t get them home-field advantage in the NFC. Heck, it might not even get them a first-round bye. Can you even imagine that?

If the 49ers win out, which they can totally do, they will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC at 14-2. As long as they don’t lose to Seattle, they’ll be the No. 1 seed at likely 13-3. Green Bay has just one meeting with all three division rivals the rest of the way. The Packers might lose on the road to the Minnesota Vikings, but they could get a top-two seed over the Saints in the NFC playoff picture.

With the way the NFC is shaking out, the Saints will either play at home in a dome this January or have to brave the elements on the road outside. Do you think they’re going to win at Lambeau Field, CenturyLink Field or Levi’s Stadium in January? Me neither.

Should they draw the Vikings in the No. 3 vs. the No. 6 game on Wild Card Weekend, that’s a brutal first-round game for them. Like the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams and Titans, the Vikings are a run-the-ball-first offense with a physical offensive attack and play great defense. That is the recipe for success against the 2019 Saints. Can you imagine what the Baltimore Ravens would do?

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At the end of the day, are the Saints a good team? Absolutely, and their record is every indication of that. But are they a great team? That, I’m not so sure of. When it comes down to a battle of two teams in the trenches, where one man is trying to burrow through another man’s soul, the Saints aren’t going to be able to hold their own once the game gets gross. Finesse only gets you so far.