Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How good are the Saints?

No need to go into Monday night's debacle. The Patriots lost to a clearly superior (at this point, at least) Saints team, featuring an extraordinarily explosive offense.

The question is, how explosive?

New Orleans ripped the Patriots defense for 38 points, giving them 407 points through 11 games, an average of 37 points per contest exactly.

The record? That would be 589 points and 36.8 per game, set by - you guessed it - the 2007 Patriots. So it begs the question: how does this Saints squad stack up against the record-setting attack New England employed en route to a 16-0 season two years ago?

Contrary to the opinion of various experts, this Saints squad appears to hold the edge. New Orleans has four top-notch receivers (Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Jeremy Shockey), all of whom had their moments Monday night, an intimidating trio at running back (Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush), and a quarterback in Drew Brees who has the perfect mix of brains and physical gifts to conduct this elite orchestra of talent.

Not to slight that Patriots team, which saw Tom Brady (50 touchdown passes) and Randy Moss (23 touchdown receptions) set records no one on this Saints team will break this year. But New England was unbalanced over the season. Many of those points came early on. In a stretch from weeks 6-11, the Patriots put up 48 points (on Dallas), 49 points (on Miami), 52 points (on Washington), 24 points (on Indianapolis) and 56 points (on Buffalo).

That Buffalo victory was the turning point, as the Patriots went from awe-inspiring to merely efficient. The rest of the season went: 31 points (against Philadelphia), 27 points (against Baltimore), 34 points (Pittsburgh), 20 points (N.Y. Jets), 28 points (Miami) and a final 38-point outburst against the New York Giants. Four of those victories were by 10 or fewer points, three were by a field goal.

Furthermore, that Patriots team was one-dimensional compared to this Saints team, or to other offensive juggernauts in recent memory such as the 2004 Indianapolis Colts, 2001 St. Louis Rams or 1998 Minnesota Vikings (whose record the Patriots broke).

New England had no running game to speak of. It was Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris, and when Morris went on injured reserve during the season, there was hardly any cause for concern. It was Brady to Moss, Welker, Donte' Stallworth or Jabar Gaffney. All the time.

Those other teams had more weapons to stop. In 2004, Manning was throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, en route to 49 touchdown passes, but he was also handing off to Pro-Bowler Edgerrin James. In 2001, Kurt Warner threw for 36 touchdowns and 4,830 yards to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Ricky Proehl or Az-Zahir Hakim. He also had future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk in the backfield, the previous year's MVP.

Here's how I would rank the top offenses of the past 11 years:

1. 1998 Vikings
2. 2009 Saints
3. 2007 Patriots
4. 2004 Colts
5. 2001 Rams

Why the Vikings? Pure depth. A reborn Randall Cunningham had two of the greatest receivers in history to throw to. Cris Carter caught everything, and paired excellently with an explosive rookie named Randy Moss. Robert Smith made the Pro Bowl as a dangerous option at running back. The Vikings went 15-1, won every game at home, and came within a fluke miss by kicker Gary Anderson of going to the Super Bowl.

The ill fate of the '98 Vikings highlights an interesting trend. Each of the high-octane offenses mentioned above got tripped up short of the ultimate goal, with the '01 Rams and '07 Patriots falling one victory short of Super Bowl triumph.

Will the Saints show that offense can win in February? Stay tuned.

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