With their 23-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints ended their four-year playoff drought. Next week's regular-season finale will help determine whether the Saints are NFC South champions or a wild-card entry. Regardless, they have shown they just might be the most dangerous team in the NFC.
Sure, the Eagles and Vikings both have 12 wins — one more than the Saints — but with Carson Wentz no longer leading the way, Philadelphia doesn't pose the same threat. And although they boast a dominant defense and efficient offense, the Vikings still have a couple chinks in their armor.
As the regular season draws to a close, you can make the argument that no NFC squad appears as equipped for a deep postseason run as the Saints.
The New Orleans offense ranks among the best. Not only do the Saints have a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but they also have a pair of platooning Pro Bowl running backs to ensure exceptional balance. Key on the ground attack, Drew Brees will burn you through the air. Start concentrating on limiting the passing game, and Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram gash you from the backfield.
Not only do the Saints average 4.7 yards per carry, but they also lead the league with 22 rushing touchdowns.
Yet against Atlanta, it was the New Orleans defense — led by linebackers Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o, edge rusher Cameron Jordan and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore — that shined brightest. The unit played at an elite level, producing two goal-line stands, recording two takeaways and five sacks while denying the Falcons on 11 of 13 third downs.
If the Saints can maintain this all-around level of play, it's hard to see another NFC team derailing them.
Against the Panthers, who were already swept by the Saints, New Orleans' offense holds the edge — just way more consistent and well rounded than up-and-down Cam Newton and Co. You'd take the Saints over the Falcons nine times out of 10 for the same reasons.
Minnesota's defense is superior, but if the game comes down to a shootout, Brees holds the edge over Case Keenum. And the Eagles now appear a tick below the Vikings both defensively and under center.
The Rams did beat New Orleans at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Week 12, and Todd Gurley leads a rushing attack capable of rivaling the Saints'. But things kick up a notch in the postseason, and the experience that New Orleans boasts could make a difference, especially if it comes down to Brees vs. Jared Goff in a pressure situation.
Seattle remains in the hunt, and the Seahawks also have impressive postseason experience. But with the defense battered, and Russell Wilson basically being a one-man show on offense, New Orleans wins this matchup on paper as well.
Jacksonville's worst nightmare
The San Francisco 49ers gave the rest of the league the blueprint for beating the red-hot Jaguars on Sunday. Because of that, Jacksonville should be concerned about its chances for longevity in the postseason.
The Niners jumped on the Jags early, going up 16-0. Forced to play from behind, Jacksonville had to scrap its run-heavy calling card and put an inordinate workload on the shoulders of quarterback Blake Bortles.
Yes, Bortles had been the NFL's hottest quarterback this month. But he's still not the guy you want throwing on every play. A strong rushing game and aggressive defense are his two best friends. But forced to stray from their offensive recipe — and with the defense on its heels as the 49ers extended one drive after another — the Jaguars struggled.
Bortles did rack up 382 passing yards and two touchdowns and did so while spreading the ball around to nine pass-catchers. But he also threw three interceptions. The Jags struggled on third downs in particular, converting just five of 13. Meanwhile, the 49ers were 10-for-15 on third downs, effectively wearing down the Jaguars defense.
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Few people around the league envision an AFC Championship Game without both the Patriots and Steelers. But several observers have said that Jacksonville, because of its defense, does pose a threat. However concerns remain about the Jaguars' ability to hang in a shootout, especially on the road. Sunday's loss proved such worries legitimate.
— The Browns finally won something. Sort of. With its loss to Chicago, Cleveland clinched the top pick of the 2018 NFL draft. Fortunately for the Browns, new GM John Dorsey is regarded as a sharp talent evaluator and decision-maker, two traits the franchise has lacked in its front office recently.
Now 0-15, the Browns are the first team in NFL history to have multiple 15-loss seasons, including last year's 1-15 campaign.
— Jim Caldwell's seat in Detroit appears to be heating up. Sunday's loss at Cincinnati knocked the Lions (8-6) out of playoff contention.
Caldwell guided Detroit to the postseason in 2014 and 2016, but the Lions lose in the wild-card round both times. Then this year's team underachieved, causing doubts that Caldwell will make it to a fifth season in Detroit despite signing a contract extension this past offseason. He is regarded as a good coach in NFL circles, however his players haven't responded consistently.
— A 16-point loss to Washington on Sunday ensured Vance Joseph double-digit defeats in his first season as head coach in Denver, and next week could conclude his tenure with the Broncos. The quarterback situation has been a disaster, a talented defense has underachieved, and Joseph has long appeared to be in over his head.