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Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
Email: bhandwerger@wwltv.com | Twitter: @wwltvsports

This weekend felt a little empty ... and we all know why.

For the first time since 2008, there was no playoff football to cover, or, if you're a fan, cheer for and, well, it was a little boring.

The Saints were just too inconsistent in 2012, too physically drained from playing catch-up all season.

But there were positives, as there are in any season good or bad and yes, we understand not everybody will agree with these.

Let's take a moment to recognize a few of those individuals who appear to have a bright future in front of them and bring some cheer to the postseason.

1. Drew Brees

I know what you're thinking. Drew Brees? The bum threw a league-high 19 interceptions, including one horrible five-interception night in Atlanta.

But he's not a bum. In fact, without his emotional center and dear friend Sean Payton nearby, he still threw for 5,177 yards and a league-best 43 touchdowns. Nine of his 16 games included quarterback ratings of 109.0 or better. He registered at least 300 yards in 10 games and had four touchdowns in four contests.

And again, all of this was without Payton, the designer of the offense and the man who knows how to put Brees in the best of positions. It also was done without a true offseason with organized team activities and a minicamp.

So, why is the future bright under Brees? Well, for one, Payton returns for the 2013 season. The bigger reason, though, is he realizes that he 'slipped' in 2012. After the season-finale, Brees said, 'I've got to hold myself accountable and (the turnovers) have to come down. I'm going to do my best to fix that.'

The last time Brees had a 'down' season, in 2008, he following up in 2009 with a then career-best 70.6 completion percentage and a 34-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

2. Mark Ingram Chris Ivory tandem

Mark Ingram appeared to be heading down the lonely road of being thought of as a bust through the first seven games. Chris Ivory was inexplicably inactive or not on the field in that same time.

Nov. 5, however, produced the first game when this young tandem played together and suddenly the run game took off. Nearly 78 percent of Ingram's team-leading 602 yards came after Ivory's return. Ivory himself added 217 yards in the six games he played in.

Having Ivory healthy spurred something inside of Ingram and, when Payton gets back, there's a good chance he'll see in film of the season that the two played off each other well.

The Saints certainly didn't have a run game the league should have been envious of. That said, if they can get back to where they were in the latter half of the season rushing for at least 119 yards in all but one of the final seven games 2013 could be a lot more successful.

And it starts with these two players.

3. Curtis Lofton

The Falcons weren't sold on Curtis Lofton being an every down linebacker, one of the reasons the Saints were able to swoop in and get the player from their arch-rival. When the season ended, it was apparent the Saints and Lofton were right.

Lofton led the Saints with 123 tackles and had a sack. He also had seven tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Lofton was one of the bright spots on an otherwise dismal unit.

The Saints' middle linebacker was always around the ball and was always a positive influence, at least through the media, for his teammates. He believes in Steve Spagnuolo's system and will be a big player in making sure that others are on board when the season begins.

4. Cam Jordan

I can remember hearing people, particularly at the end of last season and the beginning of this one, who wondered if Cam Jordan was the right guy for the job.

No one is asking that anymore. Jordan led the Saints with eight sacks and proved just how versatile he was this season, playing well both at the end position and at defensive tackle. He was fourth on the team with 66 tackles, had eight tackles for a loss, 11 quarterback hits, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

And this was just his second season, his first in Spagnuolo's system. Jordan has tons of upside and will only get better. He's well-liked in the locker room and a tireless worker. He should be an anchor for the defense for years to come.

Jordan

5. Akiem Hicks

Yes, the defense allowed more yards in a single season than any other defense has in NFL history.

Yet, there were individual bright spots. Like Lofton and Jordan, Akiem Hicks is one those. A third-round pick out of the University of Regina, few were sure how Hicks would hold up against NFL-level talent and a long season.

Turns out, he held up just fine and likely cemented himself as a cornerstone of New Orleans' defensive line of the future. He might have finished with only 20 tackles, but he was a constant nuisance to the interior of offensive lines throughout the season.

In one play, he provided a snap shot of just what he can do when he has fully learned the game. Against the Denver Broncos, he tore through the middle and forced a fumble that New Orleans recovered. That play was the only bright spot in an otherwise long and gruesome game.

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