As the NFL playoffs approach, there is only one certainty: The New Orleans Saints have an invitation to the postseason party. Who they will play and where that will be is yet to be determined, but the Saints will be one of the 14 playoff teams for the fourth straight season.
With the final seeding still hanging in the balance, the Saints are battling several teams for the coveted No. 1 seed in the NFC and the accompanying first-round bye. In the mix are traditional NFC heavyweights: the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, and Los Angeles Rams.
Ideally, the Saints would emerge with the best record in the NFC, capturing a first-round bye and home-field advantage (not that it really means anything this year), but New Orleans needs to keep winning and hope for their NFC competitors to slip up in the final weeks of the season.
One major obstacle standing it New Orleans's way is Green Bay. The Packers' 37-30 victory over the Saints earlier this year means that Green Bay holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans, should the two teams finish with the same record. In order to secure the top seed, the Saints need to keep winning and pray for Green Bay to falter down the stretch.
If New Orleans fails to nab the top playoff position but still clinches the NFC South, they'll face one of the three Wild Card opponents in the first round of the playoffs. Even if the Saints miss out on a first-round bye, there's a decent chance that they'll be the NFC's No. 2 seed, meaning that New Orleans would face the No. 7 seed, the lowest-ranked Wild Card opponent, in the first round of the playoffs.
As a No. 2 seed, the Saints have several possibilities of potential opponents, including the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and San Francisco 49ers. More importantly, the Saints would square off against any of these teams in the familiar confines of the Superdome.
Regardless of opponent, the question on the mind of every New Orleans Saints fan is: Will Drew Brees be ready for the postseason?
It seems likely that Brees should be ready to lead the Saints once again, prior to the playoffs, but the franchise isn't in a hurry to rush their aging star back into action prematurely. Brees's return is a delicate balancing act for the Saints, weighing the risk of further injury, playoff seeding, and team rhythm.
While backup quarterback Taysom Hill is doing fine in the interim, the Saints are at their best with Brees steering the ship. The former Super Bowl MVP has the experience and moxie needed to guide the Saints through a treacherous playoff run. Plus, he doesn't fumble nearly as often.
The Saints have been insanely successful weathering Brees's absences over the past two seasons, but those were regular-season games. The playoffs are different. New Orleans won't be facing the hapless Falcons, or any team without a quarterback, once the postseason starts.
Fortunately for New Orleans, their defense remains one of the best units in the NFL, regardless of who is under center for the Black and Gold. Whether it's Brees, Bridgewater, Hill, or Winston, the Saints' defense has been a rock that the franchise could consistently rely on to shut down opposing teams and give their own offense a chance to win any game.
The one caveat is that the Saints' schedule hasn't been particularly daunting. Through no fault of their own, New Orleans has faced only a handful of surefire playoff teams so far this season, with mixed results against those opponents. Nine straight wins is impressive, but it's very possible that the only victory in the dominant winning-streak involving a future playoff team was the 38-3 trouncing of Tampa Bay in early November.
Yes, the Saints beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers twice, but they also lost to potential top-seed Green Bay and the potential AFC Wild Card Las Vegas Raiders. Besides Tampa Bay, what is the most impressive win on New Orleans's schedule? If you're struggling to find the answer, it's because the answer doesn't exist. The Saints have beaten up on a bunch of non-playoff teams, and even considering the "any given Sunday" adage, their body of work isn't actually that impressive.
That first-round bye is paramount for New Orleans because despite what Saints fans might believe, the 2020 incarnation of their beloved squad isn't battle-tested. This team has won an incredible number of games the past four seasons and multiple division titles and has experienced the agony of not one, not two, but three heartbreaking postseason defeats. Last season, however, doesn't matter. History doesn't matter. The only relevant games that matter are those played in the wild, unpredictable 2020 season.
Every Saints fan is praying for another Super Bowl win, not only to celebrate the coronation of this franchise's remarkable four-year run, but because these people, these fanatics, crave some sort of catharsis for what seems like years of NFL injustices, dating back as far as Sean Payton's year-long suspension in 2012 to the more-recent egregious NOLA No-Call in the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams two seasons ago.
The Saints have the players, the pedigree, and the baggage to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium next February. Brees's health remains the largest question mark when evaluating this team's postseason success, but is it possible that the Saints' previous playoff post-traumatic stress disorder will limit this year's squad from achieving their ultimate goal?
As sweet as winning a Super Bowl on a division rival's home soil would be—in Tom Brady's locker room, no less—the Saints will have to elevate their play if they hope to end Brees's career on a winning note and bring back another title to New Orleans.
The ball hasn't bounced the Saints' way during the prior three playoff runs, but in a year when nothing surprises us anymore, maybe New Orleans has a little voodoo left in the tank.
Andrew Alexander is a contributing writer, football fan, and unofficial president of the Arch Manning Fan Club. Follow him on Twitter at @TheOtherAA and listen to the Krewe du Drew podcast.
[Lead Image courtesy New Orleans Saints / Michael Nance]