Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Week 17 Preview: Bears Give Saints a Break

An article in Tuesday morning Times Picayune article announced how the Saints earned the NFC’s number one seed in the playoffs after Minnesota dropped what may have been the most exciting Monday Night Football game of the season.

Earned is the TP sports-page’s word, certainly not mine.

Had the New Orleans Saints managed to squeak out a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon, it could be said that they earned their coveted spot. Instead, the Black and Gold was embarrassed by a two-win team and it took the hated Chicago Bears, the same team that stopped the Saints’ Super Bowl drive and whose fans mocked the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, nudged New Orleans over the finish line.

Stumbled and bumbled would be more suitable words to earned.

Am I being too harsh on the Saints? Perhaps.

But if the Saints perform in the NFC playoffs in the same manner by which they are closing out the regular season, then this fan will be converting a booked flight to south Florida into a $200 Southwest Airlines credit sooner than later.

While I might seem ungrateful considering that they have accumulated an unprecedented number of wins and possess their first-ever full homefield advantage in franchise history, there is much room for improvement.

The same Saints team that took the field against Tampa Bay, Washington and Saint Louis couldn’t beat any of the NFC teams slated for post-season play.

Starting with the Miami game, opposing running backs have enjoyed career games against the Saints’ defense while the Black and Gold’s offensive ground game has ground to a halt.

Granted the Saints have been hobbled with injuries. Running backs Reggie Bush and Mike Bell have spent a lot of time on the shelf; defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy was placed on IR while fellow DT Sedrick Ellis has had recurring knee issues; wide receiver Lance Moore has spent much more time on the sideline than on the field; the linebacker corps has been riddled with injuries and finally starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer have been out a good bit in the season’s second-half.

With the first-round bye and homefield now secured, the Saints banged up squad has two weeks to heal up before they play the game that will determine whether the Saints host their first NFC Championship or begin speculating earlier than they would like what to do with their late draft pick in the first round.

The relevance of their regular season finale against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte has evolved much over the past two weeks.

Going into the Saturday night showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, the week 17 match-up was a milestone en route to giving the 1972 Miami Dolphins in the NFL history book.

After losing to the Buccaneers, it was the game the Saints needed to win in order to lock-up homefield for the playoffs.

Thanks to the Bears, the game has assumed a “pre-season game four” identity, with starters expected to play sparingly to minimize the potential for injury to key players.

The Saints should be grateful that the game no longer has playoff seeding implications as the Panthers have won their past two contests with a combined score of 67-16 against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.

The Saints first-string would have had trouble beating a reinvigorated Panthers team under replacement, perhaps on a permanent basis, quarterback Matt Moore and their duo of 1,000-yard running backs. Their stingy pass-defense, 4th in the league, would not have mad matters any easier.

This Sunday, the Saints could be getting their first glimpse at their biggest threat for repeating as the NFC South division champions next season.

Six Shoulda, Five Were

Hopefully the five Saints players selected for the Pro-Bowl will not actually play in the game. Congratulations to starters quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans and free safety Darren Sharper and to back-ups middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tackle Jon Stinchcomb. That defensive end Will Smith was snubbed is a major disappointment. Smith, who has comeback after an injury-plagued 2008 season, is second in the conference in sacks with 13, a half behind Minnesota’s Jared Allen. That Smith was not chosen as a reserve is inexcusable.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Week 16 Review: Who Can't?

Saints fans now know what it was like to have been wearing red and gold in FedEx Field a few Sundays ago.

After going into the half resembling the team that dominated the New England Patriots and New York Giants, the New Orleans Saints behaved like the squad that struggled against the likes of the lowly Washington Redskins and the lowlier Saint Louis Rams when they lost to the lowliest team in the NFC South, a Tampa Bay team that had won only two wins going into the second-to-last regular season game.

WWL sportscaster and former Saints quarterback Boibby Hebert described the defeat by the Buccaneers as the worst in the franchise's history; while I feel the Cajun Cannon's pain, I won't go that far as the team chronicles are chock full of bleak moments.

In addition to the embarassment of being over-run by the Bucs, the Saints blew what was their best opportunity to own homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, though if the team continues to performance like this in post-season, the Saints will only be in one playoff game anyway.

Tampa Bay should be credited for overcoming the stark challenge before them, as they were a two-touchdown + dog to the Saints going into the game and trailing them 17-3 entering the third quarter. The cellar dwellers of the NFC South did not pack it in and played for pride and just possibly saved their coach's job for another season.

The Saints played sloppy on every side of the ball, offense (wide receiver Marques Colston's second fumble of the season), defense (making Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams look like Steven Jackson- the Saints defense made Jackson look like Barry Sanders in November) and special teams (bad punt led to bad punt return). And then there was kicker Garrett Hartley's missed attempt at winning the game in regulation.

And yes Mr. Hartley, the loss is your fault.

I know there were failures across the board by many of his teammates on Sunday but when it came down to it, Hartley gets paid to win games like that, like he did against the Redskins when Hartley's opposite number didn't get it done.

The Saints started their winning streak by dominating on offense and making big plays, not to be confused with good play, on defense. The second half of their winning streak has been mostly "miracle wins", with a few exceptions.

Unfortunately for the Saints, the miracle well with the fleur-de-lis bucket has run dry the last two weeks.

And yes, while writing this, I am aware of a miracle being played out on Soldier Field that could lock up homefield and while that should help their chances (or at a minimum save me the expense and agony of flying to Minneapolis in January).

The Black and Gold doesn't need gris-gris or fans to pay ludicrous homages to the "unknown who dat"; the offense needs to learn to not cough the ball up; the defense needs to learn to stop opponents on third down and special teams needs to convert field goals and adequately cover kickoffs and punts.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Week 15 Review: They Dat

I guess those crazy Cowboys fans got their money's worth on Saturday night.

Dallas fans had driven up prices on the secondary-ticket market months ago, well before the Saints had amassed an impressive winning streak. Five weeks ago, a ticket in the nosebleeds could be sold for $300.

The Saints had their first total reality check of the season in their own building, unable to play Houdini once again, even if the latest improbable comeback was marked by an opposing team missing an easy field goal.

Turnovers, an inability to run the ball and poor defense contributed to the first Black and Gold loss of the season. Oh did I mention that dropped end zone reception?

In all fairness, the Saints had a virtual monopoly on "breaks" this season. Just last week a wide-open Atlanta wide-out bumbled what would have been a touchdown reception that would have made a Saints come-back unlikely.

Rather than break the game down, I'll address the most wide-spread lunacy that has been circulated since the Saints faced the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football: a loss is not a good thing.

That the Saints' shot at perfection has been dashed has many Saints fans glum; my main concern is home-field in the playoffs when many of our key-players will have returned.

That's what matters now.

If the Saints beat Tampa at home and beat Carolina on the road they will have beaten the Minnesota Vikings out for the coveted post-season advantage. And looking at the Vikings' schedule (Carolina, Chicago and the G-men), the Saints will most likely have to win out.

There will be no rest for the weary.

The Saints' o-line has to do a better job holding back opponents; quarterback Drew Brees needs to protect the ball better; the Saints running backs need to be more productive so as to not put the fate of games squarely on Brees' shoulders.

Losing to Dallas is not the end of the world, though it is painful to drop a game to the worst winners in all of organized sports.

Thre good news is that the team will have an extra day to prepare for the Bucs and that the season finale in Charlotte will not be flexed into an evening game.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Week 15 Preview: 13 and 0 and in a Must-Win

Week 15 Preview: 13 and 0 and in a Must-Win

The schizo New Orleans Saints have done two things consistently this season: 1) win and 2) win comfortably at home. Which is why their match-up with the Dallas Cowboys is that much more important.

With the Minnesota Vikings only 1.5 games behind the Saints (when factoring in the purple warriors’ tie-breaker advantage), the Black and Gold can ill afford to start a losing streak, even a brief one.

If the Saints win two games, if Minnesota loses two games or if the Saints win one and the Vikings lose one, the Saints’ only road game in post-season would be in south Florida.

After Dallas, the Saints face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home and then close out the season in the aftenoon at Carolina, which could very well be “flexed” into a Sunday night game if New Orleans goes into the regular season finale unbeaten.

The Vikings face a battered Panthers squad in Charlotte, a visit to Soldier Field to take on the hapless Chicago Bears and then hosting the New York Giants, a team that is fighting for its playoff life after losing to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. Considering the state of their opposition, the Vikings are poised to win out.

For what it’s worth, Saints fans should cheer for the Giants for the remainder of the regular season as a motivated Giants team could be the difference between the NFC Championship being played in the Superdome or in the Metrodome.

Dallas enters the Saturday night game with an offense that ranks 13th in points (22.98 average per game), 3rd in yards (391.1 per game) and 7th (128.5 average) on the ground and 6th (262.5 average) in the air.

In short, Dallas, regardless of their problems in December, has a potent offense that is clearly superior to those of the lesser teams the Saints struggled to defeat over the past few weeks.

Defensively, the Cowboys have allowed the 6th least points (17.9 average), the 8th least rushing yards (100.2 average) but rank 21st against the pass (229.2 average). Dallas is tied for 12th in sacks with 30.

I’m not going to bother delving into the numbers for the Saints. They have the top-rated offense that has had trouble running the ball as of late (a strength for the team in the blow-out days that had given them control of the clock and kept opposing defenses guessing) and has gone back to relying disproportionately on the quarterback Drew Brees, tactic that did not serve the Saints well in the previous two seasons even though the Saints have one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

The Saints defense has been bizarre: opposing offenses have not had to punt too often against them though they have succeeded in making opponents go for field goals, which is significant. The “D” has also retained a knack for making big plays, whether they have been timely interceptions or fourth quarter force outs.

The factor that had been missing in the Saints close games was the Who Dat Nation en masse, which could be the factor against a tough Dallas team and in the post-season.

The Oddsmaker’s Take

Danny Sheridan of USA Today has the Saints as a 7.5 favorite against the Cowboys. That Dallas is clearly a better team than Atlanta, a team the Saints slipped past by a field goal, shows that the oddsmakers are buying into the significance of homefield advantage for the Saints.
Past performances and the strength of their opponent says take the points; the Saints’ victory over New England two weeks ago says give them and that the Black and Gold will somehow, inexplicably blow out the Cowboys. I say take the points.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Week 14 Review: 13 & D'oh!

How can a Saints squad that performed as poorly as they did against Atlanta compete with the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night?

How could the New Orleans Saints dominate the New England Patriots yet barely escape with wins against teams with losing records?

I know the official reasons for the Saints’ recent problems with struggling teams: they were road games; the Saints’ secondary is hurting; the Saints’ depth at linebacker is thin; the third moon of Saturn was aligned with Mercury; etc., etc., etc.

Maybe I am demanding too much, though all I want is homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and a 16-0 season, in that order, though I reckon if the Black and Gold achieves the second part then they will have accomplished the first as well. I digress.

Perhaps I should just be happy that the Saints are in unchartered waters for the franchise. After all, they have secured a bye in the first round, will host a divisional playoff game and have won the most games in franchise history. In a row to boot.

However part of me has trouble accepting that a team capable of requiring small miracles to slip past the likes of Saints Louis, Washington and Atlanta minus their starting quarterback and running back will make it to the NFC Championship, let alone the big one. Make that, THE Big One.

Some of the numbers from the Atlanta win aren’t bad. Quarterback Drew Brees completed over 75% of his passes for 296 yards and 3 touchdowns. I am not going to bother delving into the NASA equation needed to calculate his passer rating; on paper he had a good day. The kind of day that will help him in his pursuit of MVP.

Hell even Reggie Bush had a great day as a running back, receiver and, GASP, punt returner..at least compared with his punt return record THIS season.

More about the highlights and lie-heights later.

The Saints need to win two of their next three games for homefield advantage. Beating the Cowboys in a short week, NOTE THE EXACT SAME short week the Cowboys must contend with, even shorter as they played a later game on Sunday and will have to travel, combined with a rolling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers make the season finale a contest for vanity and superlative posterity.

Homefield matters come playoff time; but not nearly as much as playing well on defense.

What I Liked

#9 Not necessary to expound further.

Reggie, Reggie, Reggie They say Bush makes opposing defensive coordinators nervous; I think he makes Saints fans even more so. After his infamous yard-shy scamper last week had Saints fans screaming like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland (how bout that for sports column analogy), there #25 goes showing why he is an asset, even if one not worth $8,000,000. Bush rushed for an average 5 yards per carry but was only given 6 opportunities to do so despite his good fortune against the Falcons. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen head coach Sean Payton be stingy with the hot hand. Bush caught 2 touchdown passes, with his trademark pylon leap on his first and a dandy of a screen pass. Bush also had a 23-yard punt return. Too Bush’s credit, he fumbled the ball though reacted quick enough to recover it, keeping the Saints drive alive.

Vilma! The quarterback of the Saints’ defense led the team with tackles with 7, made a key pick and ended the Falcons’ comeback with a key stop on 4th and 2. His acquisition was General Manager Mickey Loomis’s finest swap.

What I Didn’t Like

Welcome Back to the Neighborhood Coach Payton’s call for a fake field goal was a reckless move that the Saints were fortunate to survive. Even though he missed an extra point earlier, kicker Garrett Hartley could have easily increased the Saints lead to 6 points with little time left in the game. Instead, the bad play resulted in the Falcons getting the ball back and in the more enviable position of only needing a field goal to send the game into overtime. For the most part, Payton has been conservative in his play-calling. This one joins the ranks of that gem he called in the playoff game against Philadelphia that almost cost us a spot in the NFC Championship.

Paging John Carney Hartley’s extra-point miss could have cost his team dearly. One has to wonder if the kicker will be inactive next week, especially as the Saints are playing at the Superdome.

One Punt The part of the game that made me almost sick to my stomach was that the Saints defense only forced the Falcons to punt once. Forget “bend don’t break”; the longer our defense is on the field, the more likely they will get exploited for big plays. The lack of a pass rush is a major deficiency that needs to be remedied if the Saints expect to avoid “one and done” in the post-season. The Saints gave up big passing plays and one near touchdown pass that Atlanta wide receiver Michael Jenkins just missed hauling in for 6. Forcing the Falcons to settle for three field goals is commendable. However, a championship caliber team would be able to make an opposing offense punt the ball away more than once, especially an offense minus their two star players.

Game Ball: linebacker Jonathan Vilma

While it was Brees and Bush who put the points up on the there board, it was Vilma who virtually sewed up the game by himself on defense. Minus the INT and 4th and 2 stop, Saints fans in attendance would have had to endure a chorus of “We Dats” from the locals.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Week 14: Two Kinds of Desperate

The New Orleans Saints travel to the unfriendly confines of the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon to take on the franchise’s primary historic rival Atlanta Falcons while keeping an eye on the Minnesota Vikings, their current rival for homefield advantage in the playoffs.

A Saints victory against the Falcons would assure the Black and Gold a first-round bye. Victories against the Falcons and next Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Network showdown in the Superdome combined with a Vikings loss would give the Black and Gold their first full homefield advantage in post-season (though the Saints had a first-round bye in 2006, the Chicago Bears had the overall homefield advantage, which proved to be significant in ending the Saints’ Super Bowl run).

Though the Saints have on paper a two game lead over the Vikings, a WWL radio commentator best described it as being a 1.5 game edge due to Minnesota being assured of having the tie-breaker via conference record since any Saints loss now to the end of the season would be against NFC rivals while one of the Vikings’ two losses was against an AFC (Pittsburgh Steelers) squad.

With homefield advantage and the prospect of joining two (perhaps three if the Colts continue their winning ways) NFL teams as having won every single regular season game weighing heavily on the team’s agenda, the Saints cannot afford to take any opponent lightly, with their overtime escape from Landover, MD showing that even a team with a poor record is capable of putting up a hell of a fight.

A loss to the Falcons would not only end the Saints’ unprecedented wining streak but drop their lead over the Vikings to a half-game for homefield advantage. And while the Vikings play in a dome, thus negating the natural elements that confounded the Saints on a bitter, snowy day at Soldier Field in early 2007, the team would obviously prefer to have the 12th man working for them and not against them.

The Saints will be taking on a desperate team on Sunday. At 6-6, the Falcons are a longshot to make it into post-season but there is something else driving the Atlanta fan base: the Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons. While this might seem like a trifling goal even to Saints fans (Coach Jim Mora’s 1987 and 1988 teams accomplished this feat), the fans in the ATL are anxious to remove this hex from their house.

And Saints fans can empathize with the Falcon flock as they were tormented by their franchise’s total lack of success in post-season play until Coach Jim Haslett’s team exorcised that demon in 2000.

A loss to the Saints would force the Dirty Birds to run the table to end up 9-7. The Falcons travel to New Jersey to face the Jets the following week before retuning home to take on the Buffalo Bills and then closing the season out in Tampa Bay, that being the most probable victory on their schedule.

The Match-Up

The Saints, with their battered, bruised and out starting cornerbacks, will be against a team that has suffered even more from the injury bug.

Quarterback Matt Ryan, who has dealing with turf toe, did not practice on Thursday and will be a game-time decision. My gut tells me that “Matty Ice” is unlikely to play in order to avoid further aggravating his injury against the toughest team left on their schedule. Even if Ryan does play, he won’t be at the top of his game, potentially allowing the Saints’ defense to look good after not looking so well in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s homecoming in Washington last Sunday.

Running back Michael Turner has an injured ankle and also sat out practice on Thursday, though like Ryan, if he does play, Turner will not be at the same level he was when he ran for 151 yards against the Saints on Monday Night Football.

The Saints are not the picture of health either, though their key playmakers on the offensive side of the ball should be on field. Saints lost a valuable backup when linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar was put on injured reserve after getting hurt against the Redskins on Sunday. Linebacker Scott Fujita is struggled with a knee injury that required surgery over the weekend and is out for Atlanta. Linebacker Marvin Mitchell is also not expected to play on Sunday. With the linebacker corps thinning out, the team signed linebacker Anthony Waters, who played in preseason games for the Black and Gold and just missed making the regular season roster.

The good news is that the Saints may get back wide receiver Lance Moore, a favorite target of Brees and considered to have one of the best set of hands on the team. Moore was limited in practice.

The Oddsmaker’s Take

Danny Sheridan of USA Today has the Saints as a 10.5 point favorite, an increase of a point earlier in the week and a reflection of the belief that Ryan and Turner will likely be either scratches or simply not contributing as much as they would if healthy.

With the Saints’ top three cornerbacks injured and the team missing a starting linebacker (Fujita) and two reserves (Dubar and Mitchell), the Falcons offense could have terrorized the Black and Gold on the ground and in the air. Minus their two best offensive weapons, the Falcons’ offense is going to struggle staying on the field too long even against the Saints’ patchwork defense.

The longer Brees and Co. keeps the Falcons’ defense on the field, the worst it will get for the Dirty Birds.

The Falcons offense is ranked 10th in points scored at 23.2 and the defense is ranked 23rd in points allowed with 23.2. The Falcons net points for the season at this juncture is 0.
The Falcons ranked 29th in pass defense and are marginally better on the ground, ranking 23rd in stopping the run.

Though the Saints’ offense had trouble containing the lackluster Redskins’ offense, the Falcons are hurting across the board.

While I felt a lot better about 9.5, I am less inclined to give the 10.5 after Washington. However, the Saints survived that game playing on a bad field, in a short week and in adverse weather conditions (hardly the Bucs game from last season). Also keep in mind that the Georgia Dome will be well-stocked with Saints fans making the journey to Atlanta, chipping away at the Dirty Birds’ homefield advantage. Tickets in the nosebleed sections of the Goeriga Dome that have a face-value of $25 are going in excess of $100 and it’s unlikely that local Falcons fans are driving up the price for tickets on the resale market.

With the Saints offense largely intact, the Atlanta offense less so and the Saints “big-play” defense pickup turnovers, the game could be a route. If I was laying down some green, I’d give the 10.5.

One Last Observation from the Redskins “Upset”

The same Washington Redskins team that came the closest thus far to defeating the Saints were also the first team to lose to the Detroit Lions, a squad that had not won a game since the 2007 season.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Enter the Front-Runner

A shoe the size of the Muses parade’s Grand Marshall float dropped in the week of qualifying for mayor of New Orleans when word spread that Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu appears to be on the verge of making a third try for mayor of the state’s largest city.

That Landrieu would immediately become the front-runner is apparent; what isn’t is the reason why he renounced a bid back in July when polls showed him taking a sizable, if not insurmountable, plurality in a primary crowded with unknowns.

Had Landrieu announced then and there, his election would have been a virtual certainty. Candidates would have thought-twice of getting in, financially committing themselves and more importantly, it would have caused many of the big contributors to sit on their money for a little while longer.

Instead, Landrieu would jump into a race against two self-financed white Democrats and a black moderate Democrat who has received considerable business support. Even if the money men shift to Landrieu, many have already donated the maximum to his opponents.

One possible reason for Landrieu to enter the mayor’s race has to do with his increasingly limited political options.

Though he was handily re-elected to the state’s second office in 2007, Landrieu will never again have the luxury of drawing an unknown Republican legislator and Sammy Kershaw as opponents.

There was no chance of Republican Governor Bobby Jindal accepting Arizona US Senator John McCain’s invitation to serve as his running mate if their election resulted in the elevation of a Democrat and, worse yet in the eyes of Republican stalwarts, a Landrieu as governor. Such a transition of power would go about as smoothly as the shift between the Batista and Castro regimes.

So long as Landrieu is lieutenant governor, Jindal is tethered to a radiator on the fourth floor of Huey Long’s edifice.

The national and state Republican parties and perhaps Jindal himself will see to it that the governor will have much more political freedom in the future, which means Landrieu has to go.

With re-election removed as an option, Landrieu had three alternatives: US Representative for the Second District, governor or mayor.

Though serving in Congress would seem to be a natural shift for the younger brother of the state’s senior senator, the closed primary all but guarantees a black Democratic nominee in 2nd district.

Governor is a more attractive option to seeking re-election as it would be easier for him to raise money to face-off against Jindal than it would be for an office nobody, or rather no special interests, cares about.

A Jindal-Landrieu showdown in 2011 was likely up until the word got out that the lieutenant governor was looking at mayor again, a sign that the state Democrats have given up offering a significant challenger to the governor since Landrieu was by far Jindal’s most credible potential opponent.

More than likely, Landrieu looked at the numbers and surmised he had a better chance of winning over enough black voters against a likely black opponent for mayor of New Orleans than he did moving white moderates Democrats and independents against Jindal in a gubernatorial election.

Though it could be interpreted that Landrieu’s run for mayor is a sign of weakness, the scion of New Orleans’ last white mayor enters the race from a position of strength, even if he is somewhat tardy.

First, Landrieu has 100% name recognition. He doesn’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making himself known.

Secondly, while the other candidates for mayor have resorted to dropping the f-bomb and employing other gimmicks to get noticed to gain traction and establish relevancy, Landrieu becomes the man to beat by virtue of announcing his intentions.

Thirdly, Louisiana’s Medicaid shortfall might not be the only beneficiary of Mary Landrieu’s tenuous support for health care. Mitch Landrieu is the only candidate for mayor who has the capacity to raise national money for a local office.

Now famous for her “$300,000,000 vote” for opening debate on the Democrat’s health care proposal in the US Senate, Mary can open doors for Mitch to contributors not necessarily interested in New Orleans politics but are willing strengthen her political position in a state that is anything but friendly to President Barack Obama’s agenda.

Fourthly, the Republican-machiavellian angle is no longer there. Four years ago, a Landrieu victory for mayor would have given then-Governor Kathleen Blanco an ally in the parish a Democratic candidate must carry overwhelmingly to win statewide. When Nagin, an avowed enemy of Blanco, was returned to office, there was little chance of Blanco running for re-election, thus eliminating an obstacle to Jindal's bid to win over north Louisiana.

Times and political fortunes have changed as Jindal would now be in a stronger political position if Landrieu left office early as he would be able to pick up a badly needed Republican lieutenant governor, and one of his choosing, in a low-turnout statewide special election without having to simultaneously run his re-election campaign. Furthermore, a Mitch Landrieu run for mayor 2010 practically eliminates him as a gubernatorial candidate in 2011.

Back in 2008 Jindal often joked how Mitch was encouraging McCain to put him on the Republican ticket; this year, Jindal might secretly root for Landrieu’s election as mayor.

Finally, there is the “I Told You So” factor, something that cannot be underestimated and cuts across party and racial lines. And therein lies the difference between Mitch Landrieu losing by 4% in 2006 and winning by 8% in 2010. Landrieu, or for that matter any other white candidate, will have an easier time finding a larger pool of black voters more open to voting for a white candidate than in those turbulent days less than a year removed from Hurricane Katrina.

As ironic as this statement might be, but nobody has done a better job preparing the political environment for a Landrieu mayoral bid than the outgoing mayor.

While it’s true the lieutenant governor might not have had much of a choice when pondering his long-term political future, Mitch Landrieu would enter the mayor’s race as the odds-on favorite

Week 13 Review: The Beltway Miracle

The story: a lackluster Washington Redskins team faces off against a New Orleans Saints squad coming off of a major win against one of the top teams in the league. That same day, the Saints’ primary rival for their division faces off against a team from Pennsylvania. Either a Saints win or a loss by the second ranked team would allow the Black and Gold to clinch their division.

Two years ago I stood inside owner Tom Benson’s suite and watched a flat Saints team bumbled their way to a loss against the Washington yet won their first NFC South title when the Carolina Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers that same afternoon. The Saints’ owner, fuming over his team’s poor performance, was not reveling in the big picture.

It seemed like history was about to repeat itself as the Saints once again struggled against the Redskins. Before the game was over, New Orleans had secured their division when the Atlanta Falcons were defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles in Michael Vick’s return to the Georgia Dome.

And though things looked bleak as Redskins’ quarterback Jason Campbell picked the Saints defense apart while the Saints’ running game was all but contained by one of the league’s worst run defense.

However, the New Orleans Saints showed resilience and an uncharacteristic lucky streak on Sunday on the outskirts of our nation’s capital defeating the Redskins for the first time in the Sean Payton era. Most importantly the win helped expand their lead over the Minnesota Vikings, who lost to the Arizona Cardinals, for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

What I Liked

Payton’s Time Out The Saints’ head coach is not known for having the best luck when it comes to throwing the red flag though he showed excellent judgment in calling a time out for the McAlister fumble recovery to be reviewed, which iced the Redskins’ offense in overtime and put the Saints in great position for Hartley to drive the final nail in the coffin.

Welcome Back Hartley If Saints kicker John Carney’s kicking problems had an upside, it resulted in Payton benching the veteran and starting Garrett Hartley for the first time in regular season play. Hartley ended up sitting out longer than his league punishment provided for violating drug policy when Payton chose to stick with Carney, who had been signed as a temporary replacement for the suspended Hartley. Whether Carney’s recent misses or simply the fact that the Saints were playing in an outdoor stadium late in the season motivated Payton to make the switch but it paid dividends: Hartley was 4 for 5 in field goal attempts, his only miss being a 58-yard attempt at the end of regulation. Hartley more than made up for unsuccessful attempt booting in the game winner in overtime.

The Meachem Haters Have Left the Dome The nola.com sports blogs were thick with mocking and insults for the Saints’ 2007 first round draft pick. The wide receiver sat out his first season with an injury and didn’t establish himself in 2008. In 2009, Meachem has silenced his wisecracking critics with his play throughout this season. The Tennessee product put the exclamation point on his value to the team against the Redskins, catching 8 passes for 142 yards and an offensive touchdown. Meachem’s most remarkable play was on “sudden defense” when he stripped the ball that Redskins safety Kareem Moore had intercepted and ran it back for a touchdown. Meachem single-handedly pulled off the best Saints’ play since the River City Relay.

Brees Shows Why He’s THE Best The Redskins had a top rated pass defense going into the game; after Brees was done, Washington had the 4th best pass defense. Not getting anything done on the ground, Brees unleashed the air circus connecting on 35 of his 49 pass attempts for 419 yards, two touchdowns and what is perhaps the best interception the Saints’ franchise player has ever thrown.

The Big Play Defense Shows Up In addition to Meachem’s act of grand larceny, linebacker Jonathan Vilma had a key interception when the Redskins were driving to field goal range. Late free agent addition Chris McAlister, signed to supplement the team’s three injured starting cornerbacks, forced and recovered a fumble on a Jason Campbell pass to fullback Mike Sellers to put the Black and Gold in good position to win in overtime.

What I Didn’t Like

Didn’t Like But Did Respect The Redskins should get credit for playing better than their record would indicate they were. While the Skins are out of the playoffs and will finish the season with a losing record, that the team kept many of their losses close at a time when many of their key offensive and defensive players are on the shelf should say something. That embattled coach Jim Zorn’s team gave the undefeated Saints their closest brush with mortality this season says far more.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder would be foolish to sack a coach who has produced one of the top defenses in the league. Bear in mind that the Saints organization offered Sean Payton a contract extension after the Saints posted a losing record in 2007.

Also quarterback Jason Campbell, far from being a pro-bowler, played the Saints’ defense better than Super Bowl veteran Tom Brady did the week before. With some better luck with injuries next year and some added firepower on the offensive side of the ball, the Redskins should be able to compete next season, though this task will be easier said than done with new leadership when the right team leadership is already present.

Snyder was guilty of bad judgment for not picking Gregg Williams as his head coach and then firing him. Firing the man he chose over Williams won’t make matters any better. Fortunately for Washington’s NFC East rivals, Snyder is not known for being a patient man.

What Running Game? The Saints had one of the best running games in the league but you wouldn’t have known it on Sunday. The Saints had 55 yards on the ground, the equivalent of a single Steven Jackson run.

What Me Worry? Pass Rush The Saints defense did not sack Redskins quarterback once despite their offensive line having given up 32 sacks this season. The lack of pressure against opposing quarterbacks further tests the abilities of our substitute cornerbacks and our 1st round draft pick, ability to stop the pass.

Game Ball: Missing
I would have presented the game ball to Robert Meachem, but he stole it and took it back to the house. Though I have been beating the drum for Meachem since the Saints picked him in 2007, there is no question that this was wide-out’s best game of his young career. Not bad for a player who was considered the 4th best receiver on the roster at the start of the season.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Week 13 Preview: War Drums Signal Williams's Return to DC

The New Orleans Saints will travel to Landover, MD looking to expand their current 11-0 winning streak and claim outright the NFC South, which would make Sean Payton the first Saints head coach to win two division titles and preserve the Black and Gold’s slender lead over the Minnesota Vikings for homefield advantage in the playoffs.

But there is far more at stake for the Crescent City’s most popular assistant coach.

While many Saints fans had either the Patriots or Cowboys game circled on the season schedule since the 2009 match-ups were released by the NFL this past spring, Gregg Williams had a much different game circled early on his calendar.

Williams became a defensive coordinator scorned in 2008 when he was not only denied an expected promotion to head coach for the Washington Redskins after Joe Gibbs’s retirement but was sacked from his job running their defense.

Two seasons removed from Dan Snyder’s snub, the Redskins are at the bottom of the NFC East while Williams’s new team has achieved unparalleled success in franchise history in no small part through his efforts.

To paraphrase the Grail guardian from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Redskins’ owner chose poorly and Williams doubtlessly is looking make the 2009 season a little bit more painful for Snyder and his employees.

One has to wonder which group of players will be the most anxious this weekend: Washington’s defensive players who remember their old tough coach; a Washington offense that’s cognizant how bad Williams wants to make a statement at their expense on Sunday; or the Saints defense that doesn’t want to disappoint their coordinator.

Gregg Williams is coming to FedEx Field seeking “justice” and Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell may suffer greatly for his boss’ sins.

The Match-Up

Though they are in the basement of their division, the Redskins record can be misleading, at least when evaluating the team purely on their 3-8 record. The Redskins beat the Denver Broncos by 10 in week ten and had the offense been capable of scoring another touchdown in five of their losses, they’d be leading their division.

True their offense is about as potent as a 90 year old man in a cathouse sans his blue pills, as they rank 29th in points per game with a paltry average of 15.5- the kind of score the Saints offense can put up in the fourth quarter alone. The offense is as equally unremarkable on the ground (102.2 yards per game, 21st in the NFL) as they are in the air (206.8 yards per game, 20th in the league).

To further complicate matters, the team’s leading running back, Clinton Portis, will not play against the Saints. Tight end Chris Cooley, third in reception yards, has been placed on Injured Reserve. With their lackluster offense hobbled with injuries, it’s no wonder that their offense could only produce two field goals against the Cowboys.

However the Redskins defensive squad is another story, for while the Redskins offense only generated six points in the aforementioned game, their defense only allowed a single Cowboy score, a touchdown that allowed their rival to win by one point.

To put it simply, the Redskins have a defense that keeps them in almost all of their games no matter how poor their offense performs.

The Redskins have the league’s second-best pass defense though they are relatively more vulnerable against the run, allowing 127.9 yards on the ground per game, 25th in the league. That said, the Redskins defense, talented as it is, has produced few turnovers. The Redskins have 7 interceptions (none returned for touchdowns) and have recovered only six fumbles (also without scores). The Redskins defense has only one more quarterback sack than the Saints’ defense.

Campbell has been sacked 30 times compared to Brees’s 14.

Can the Saints top-ranked offense overcome the Redskins’ 7th ranked defense? Judging how the Saints decimated two top five defenses earlier in the season (the New York Giants and Jets) it appears the unstoppable force has had luck with immovable objects.

The Oddsmaker’s Take

Danny Sheridan has the Saints as a 9.5 favorite. When considering the Saints’ 21-point stomping of the New England Patriots, that line seems a little small. First the Saints will be playing in cold FedEx Field, an unkind playing environment especially for a visiting dome team. Second, the Saints have had fits with the Redskins under the Payton era, losing to them twice, most infamously a 10-16 loss after the Black and Gold had drubbed the Cowboys 42-17 the Sunday before.

The return of defensive tackle Sedrick Elli and the Redskins’ lack of a real ground threat should make life easier for a Saints defense that has given up big plays.

For the Saints, wide receiver Lance Moore and cornerback Tracy Porter and the Saints’ injury list is rife with familiar names in this short week, though limited practice participation may not be an omen of sitting out the game. The good news is that running back Reggie Bush and cornerback Jabari Greer might return against the Redskins.

The injury riddled home team will be without the services of its top rusher, pro-bowl tight end and cornerback DeAngelo Hall thought defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth should take the field after a two game sit out due to a sprained ankle.

While many people are expecting the Saints to easily add another notch on their winning streak this Sunday, the Redskins have proven to be a resilient team, losing three games by three points or less.

If I had to lay down money, I would expect the Saints to win outright though the Redskins will keep the margin within 9. As absurdly cautious as that might sound, I am still trying to exorcise memories of a Saints-Rams game that went down to the final pass.

The keys far the Saints are to score 24 points and limit turnovers. That should be enough to send Snyder off to a Johnny Rocket’s for some comfort food and for the Saints to lock up the NFC South.

If the New Orleans Saints lose a game in this regular season, then it’s likely to happen over the next three games starting with the road trip to Landover.

The OTHER Game of Note

I have two schedules posted on my bulletin board: the Saints’ and that of the Minnesota Vikings. The Saints simplified potential homefield advantage scenarios when they defeated the Patriots on Monday night as the Black and Gold needs to have a better record than the Vikings. As any Saints loss from here to the end of the season would be against an NFC team and as Minnesota’s lone loss is against an AFC team, the Vikings have the tie-breaker via conference record.

New Orleans may very well have to go unbeaten in order to secure home field advantage in the playoffs the way the Vikings have been playing.

Minnesota travel to the Arizona Cardinals this weekend though the redbirds may be without starting quarterback Kurt Warner. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is not tipping his hand whether he will start Warner or back-up Matt Leinart on Sunday night. Warner suffered a concussion against Saint Louis two weeks ago and sat out last weeks loss to the Tennessee Titans.

As the Cardinals have some cushion over the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the NFC West, Whisenhunt might not be inclined to play his banged up quarterback against the league leader in sacks.
The Vikings close out the season against the Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears (at Soldier Field) and New York Giants, with the Bengals being their toughest opponents.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Saints Week Twelve Review: Simply Amazing

In the same stadium where the famous “no mas” fight occurred, the hoodied spymaster of the NFL pulled a “Duran” benching his top operative while there was still time on the clock in what was a finish only the most na├»ve homer of a Saints fan would have predicted.

Going into the New Orleans Saints’ Monday Night Football match-up with the New England Patriots, I figured the game would have been a track meet along the lines of last season’s Saints-Chargers game in London due to the team’s battered cornerbacks. Instead, the contest resembled the 2006 routing of the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s almost inconceivable to consider that this squad was the same team that barely slipped past the Saint Louis Rams a few weeks ago, yet the Black and Gold, with a pair of just acquired free agent defensive backs helped contain one of the premier teams in the NFL without four of their key starters (running back Reggie Bush, wide receiver Lance Moore and cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter).

Now you know why the boys in Vegas give the Black and Gold good odds to win the Super Bowl.

What I Liked

Payton Twists the Knife Perhaps borrowing a page from New York Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan, the Saints head coach sent out two former Patriots on to the field for the coin toss. Sean Payton called the best game in his tenure in New Orleans.

Drew Dat and Dat and Dat The cornerstone of the franchise had his greatest game as a professional football player having a perfect passer rating of 158.3 against the supermen of the NFL. Brees, throwing like he did last season during his pursuit of Dan Marino’s passing record, completed 18 of 23 passes for 371 yards and five touchdowns.

Brees, in extending his team’s current unbeaten streak and his personal winning streak against the team of the decade.

Welcome Back Predator The Black and Gold Shop needs to go through their old inventory and see if they have any old #34s in the back. One of the highlights of the game for this Saints fan was seeing the return of the veteran’s dreadlocks on to the Superdome turf. Cornerback Mike McKenzie, who had been cut due to his spate of injuries, rejoined the team and appeared to have not missed a beat and had a key pick that shifted the moment to the Saints at a point when the Patriots could have opened up an even bigger lead. Here’s hoping McKenzie stays healthy, continues to contribute this season and is around for the next.

Who Dat? I had trouble figuring out who exactly had caught Brees’s final touchdown pass. Free agent addition tight end Darnell Dinkins, who had spent a good portion of the season injured, made his first reception count in the end zone. Payton had been high on Dinkins, choosing to keep him on the roster while cutting special teams player Courtney Roby. Fortunately the Saints re-signed Roby who had a key kick return tackle that set up McKenzie’s game changing pick.

Jaws Takes Down Another One Though he didn’t take it to the house, free safety Darren Sharper added another football to the future Hall of Famer’s impressive collection of picks snagging number 8 of the season and 62nd of his career. It should be noted that, with 5 games to go, Sharper is on the verge of breaking his personal single season record for picks, which currently stands at 9.

What I Didn’t Like

How can one complain after what will be considered one of the biggest regular season wins in the history of the franchise? A few things.

Obligatory Early Big Run It’s becoming a painful tradition with the Saints defense: start off slow giving up big runs in the first half before finally containing the opposing team’s ground game in the second half. Fortunately Patriot running back Laurence Maroney is no Steven Jackson with his biggest run being for 22 yards. Maroney had two touchdowns on the evening, virtually walking in on his second score.

Just Where Did He Think He Was Going? This is going to hurt a bit, but I got to call out defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. In his return back after injury, Ellis scooped up a fumble deep in Patriots’ territory and unwisely choose to scramble towards the end zone no where fast. The Patriots offense forced the ball out and got their second half drive restarted and went on to score a touchdown. Next time this happens Ellis, just fall down- you don’t have the ball skills nor the speed to do a whole lot with a fumble.

Is It Good? Kicker John Carney did not have a good night barely knocking in the Saints’ first score of the night off the goal post and then missing an attempt later in the game. Was it the NFL’s active all-time leading scorer’s fault or is it a snap and/or hold issue?

Game Ball: cornerback Mike McKenzie

While Brees had an incredible day, the newly re-signed McKenzie seamlessly picked up where the two Saints starting cornerbacks left off, especially as many commentators thought Patriot quarterback would pick apart the Saints’ sub-ins the secondary.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Road to the Super Bowl: Saints Wild Card and Divisional Playoff Scenarios for Week 12

Let me drop something crazy on you for a second. As of right now, it is conceivable for the New Orleans Saints to NOT make the playoffs. Sure it’s unlikely but it IS possible.

With the Saints’ win over Tampa Bay this past Sunday combined with losses by their other division rivals, the outlook is admittedly sunny…as in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Fl. sunny.

Below are wild card and divisional playoff scenarios:

Wild Card

Yes, I am cognizant that running through this exercise at this juncture of the season is about as absurd as doing a credit check on Bill Gates but I am going do it anyway. Why? Because it’s amusing to do so without beads of perspiration across my brow when evaluating such circumstances unlike almost every time the Saints were within striking distance of post-season.

The Saints can clinch a wild-card spot on Monday Night Football if they beat the New England Patriots combined with losses by the New York Giants (who are playing at Denver) and the Philadelphia Eagles (who are hosting Washington). Having defeated both the Giants and Eagles, the Saints have the straight-up tie-breaker advantage.

The Saints are assured of securing a wild-card spot if the Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and the Giants lose two games and the San Francisco Forty-Niners and Carolina Panthers lose one or if the Black and Gold win two games.

A loss by the Green Bay Packers (who are playing at Detroit) wouldn’t affect the Saints this week and it’s highly unlikely (the Lions haven’t beaten the Packers since 2005).

NFC South

As the Saints’ closest divisional competition are the 5-5 Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans least complicated lock on a playoff spot is by winning the division. A win by the Saints on MNF combined with a loss by the Falcons (who are hosting Tampa Bay on Sunday), would send the Saints into post-season. And while Atlanta is struggling, they’re not as bad off as the rebuilding Buccaneers, so a Saints loss is more probable than a Falcons defeat.

If the Saints win two of their remaining six games, then they win the division. If Atlanta loses two of their next six games, then they’re eliminated and the Saints win the division by default. The same goes if the Saints win one game and Atlanta loses one game.

Atlanta’s hopes at winning the division could be compared to someone clutching lottery tickets. Here are the scenarios by which Atlanta can overtake New Orleans for the NFC South:

1) straight up in which the Saints drop their next 6 while Atlanta runs the table, thus edging out the Saints by a game;
2) the first of the more complicated routes, where the Saints beat the Patriots and drop games to the rest of their NFC opponents while the Falcons win the rest of the games. This scenario would give Atlanta the division (at 4-2) and conference (8-4) tie breakers over the Saints, which would be 3-3 in their division with a 7-5 conference record;
3) if Atlanta won five games and ended one in a tie with the Saints dropping six in a row;
4) if the Saints drop their next six and Atlanta goes 5-1 with their one loss being to an AFC opponent, thus giving the Falcons the conference tie-breaker;
5) if the Saints lose their next six games and Atlanta wins five of their next six with their one loss being to an opponent from outside the division;
6) if Atlanta runs the table and the Saints only win in the next six games is against an NFC opponent not from the NFC South.

The strength of victory tie-breaker goes against Atlanta since the Saints beat the New York Giants while the “trade-off” loss by the Saints would be against Washington, a squad that is three games behind the G-men, necessitating collapses by both the Giants and the Saints plus a surge by the Redskins for Atlanta to benefit from this scenario.

The 4-6 Carolina Panthers could also beat out the Saints for the division if they won their next six games and the Saints drop their next six. A win or tie by the Saints or a loss or tie by Panthers would eliminate the latter from the division.

If I missed a potential scenario or if I botched a rule interpretation, I am sure some blogger would be most happy to scold me across the world wide web though I do believe this covers the NFC South scenarios.

Saints Week Eleven Review: Ten-Acious

Originally I was going to title this one “Perfect Ten” but as the Times Picayune ran that headline before I got this column out, I figured it would be more appropriate to develop a different pun for a headline.

It would have been fitting though as the Black and Gold returned to the dominating form after struggling (relatively speaking of course) since their road trip to Miami. After a first half that was starting to resemble the Saint Louis and Carolina quagmire-like contests, the Saints snapped out of it, made Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Josh Freeman look like a rookie for the first time after his previous impressive starts (once again, a relative assessment) and ran roughshod over the Bucs on both sides of the ball.

What was more impressive is that the Saints did so with some of their marquee starters ( CBs Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer, DT Sedrick Ellis and RB Reggie Bush) inactive.

With the Buccaneer season having ended long before the Saints arrived, the Black and Gold used the opportunity to expand their division lead over the Atlanta Falcons while maintaining the one game advantage with the Minnesota Vikings for homefield advantage in the playoffs and to rest some of their banged up players before the team’s biggest test this season when they face the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football.

What I Liked

Sean Payton’s Conservative Play-Calling Returning to the very field where the once pass-obsessed Saints head coach had his revelation in the midst of torrential downpour, Payton’s balanced offense put up points and controlled the tempo of the game.

Brees Finds Colston Saints quarterback Drew Brees reconnected with wide receiver Marques Colston after the team’s star receiver had an off-game in Saint Louis. Colston had five receptions for 74 yards.

Welcome Back Comrade Fujita Saints linebacker and Cal Berkley product Scott Fujita had a big impact in his second game back from injury. Fujita had 5 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove.

Special Teams Steps Up Of Thomas Morstead’s four punts, two were inside the Buccaneer 20 yard line with one being downed on the one yard line. Three Morestead kick-offs were touchbacks, limiting Tampa Bay’s one strong point.

Second-String Second-Line Continues to Gobble Passes Even with both starting cornerbacks out the Saints rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and backup safety Chris Reis snagged picks.

Saints O-Line Gives Up NO Sacks Self-explanatory.
Meachem Haters Have a Bad Day Saints number one pick in the 2007 draft had two touchdown receptions.

No Breakout Runs This Week Unlike the Saints’ past four opponents, the Buccaneers ground game didn’t rack up big yards. Tampa Bay’s leading rusher that day, running back Cadillac Williams, ran for a total of 32 yards with his longest being 6 yards. Saints allowed 119 rushing yards on the day, far less than what Saint Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson accumulated on his own the week before.

What I Didn’t Like

Rookie Errors It was disappointing to see such poor time management and wasteful challenges made by Buccaneer coach Raheem Morris. Sure it hurt the opponents, but after suffering through the LSU-Ole Miss game, poor coaching bothers me in general. While it’s understandable for Morris to be desperate considering his opponent and the way the season has unfolded for Tampa Bay, such mistakes are inexcusable on this level and a possible omen that Morris is not the man to get the job done in Tampa. Blame immaturity though Morris, who is two years younger than me, can’t afford to make similar mistakes in the future.

Sticks and Stones- 15 Yards The penalty called on Saints running back Mike Bell for unsportsmanlike conduct after an impressive run seems ridiculous for talking smack to a Buccaneer defender. How far off are we from the day that all people who play this sport need to become eunuchs to avoid BS penalties. They must have had the SEC ref squad calling this game.

42’s Nonchalant Fair Catch With Bush and wide receiver Lance Moore out, the Saints put in three different returners. While none of the three did much, free safety Darren Sharper’s sloppy almost over the should fair catch could have resulted in a fumble deep in Saints territory.
Maybe I’m wrong on this one especially since I would be lucky to get through the first rung of the Coca-Cola Cash Catch, but from what I saw, Sharper did not properly field the ball during his one time up as punt returner.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Week Eleven Preview: The Important Game Is THIS Sunday, NOT Next Sunday

The early “10-0 to New England” talk from two weeks ago has subsided with the scare the one win Saint Louis Rams gave the undefeated New Orleans Saints this past Sunday.

After last week, a one-and-eight opponent is as worrisome to Saints fans in 2009 as third-and-one for a first down was for them in 2008.

And while the game on everyone’s mind is against the vaunted New England Patriots, a team the Saints play at home only once every eight years, the seemingly lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a far more important opponent than the supermen of the northeast if only because of the post-season consequences.

Though the Saints are virtually a lock to win the NFC South as the Atlanta Falcons trail the Black and Gold by 4.5 games with only 7 left in the season, the Dirty Birds are still in contention and if they were to run the tables and the Saints were to collapse then the division record tie-breaker could drop New Orleans to wild-card status.

I know this is as likely as Jonathan Sullivan being inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame but I’m also the kind of Saints fan that won’t yell “Who Dat” at a game until it’s practically over.

I’ve seen the Joe Montana-era Forty-Niners do far too many dreadful things to the Saints of my youth to take anything for granted.

The Tampa Bay contest counts more than the New England MNF match-up because it’s a conference game. Currently the Saints have a one game lead over the Minnesota Vikings for home-field advantage in the NFC. Unfortunately for the Saints, Minnesota’s single loss is to an AFC opponent so in the event the Saints lose to the Buccaneers and the Vikings win on Sunday, New Orleans would drop to second in the NFC because of the conference tie-breaker rule.

The Match-Up

Despite struggling with turnover and failing to make first downs late in the game against the Rams, the New Orleans Saints have the top offense in the NFL. Tampa Bay has the 28th ranked offense. The Saints’ defensive woes have them rated 21st in defense, though the squad is still better than the 29th ranked defense. The Buccaneers rank 25th in points scored with an average of 17.4 per game.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees needs to be wary of cornerback Aquib Talib, who has snagged 5 interceptions this season, 2 fewer than Saints safety Darren Sharper.

The Black and Gold defense needs to contain tight end Kellen Winslow, who leads the Buccaneers in receptions with 42 (twice as many than the team’s second leading receiver) and in yards with 454. Winslow also leads the team in touchdowns scored with 5.
The good news is that Tampa Bay’s running game isn’t as fearsome as that of the Saints’ last three opponents. The Buccaneers’ leading running back is Cadillac Williams with 418 yards, averaging an unimpressive 3.9 yards per carry. Williams’s longest run for the season is 35 yards so the Saints’ first-half run defense won’t be as challenged as they were against the likes of Michael Turner, Ricky Williams, DeAngelo Williams and Steven Jackson.

The biggest run threat the Saints have to worry about is that of Tampa Bay’s rookie starting quarterback Josh Freeman. The 21-year old first-round draft pick has lit a fire under the team since starting two weeks ago, picking up the Buccaneer’s only win against the Green Bay Packers.

Freeman has run for 60 yards in his last 3 games. Expect a few Tampa Bay first-downs to be made by Freeman’s feet and not his arm against a Saints defense that has not brought a whole lot of pressure against opposing quarterbacks.

Freeman has completed half of his passes, thrown 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The Kansas State product has also been sacked 7 times in his last 3 games.

The Oddsmaker’s Take: To Lay or Not to Lay the Points

Danny Sheridan has the Saints as an eleven-point favorite. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s lack of an offensive threat (at least the Rams have a top-tier running back in Jackson) and poor defense screams of a Saints rout, with so much of the Saints’ scoring defense probably riding the pine and their recent turnover struggles, a double-digit spread can make a betting man uneasy.

The Saints should have done victory laps around the Edward Jones Dome last week but costly errors, including two Brees picks and wide receiver Marques Colston’s fumble into the endzone made the game closer than it should have been.

That said, Tampa Bay is not as good of a team as Saint Louis. What should be of concern is the weather: a 30% chance of thunderstorms on Sunday. The Saints debacle in Raymond James Stadium last year was in the midst of a small monsoon where head coach Sean Payton unwisely called for passes that led to multiple Brees interceptions in the final minutes of the game.

As Tampa is 31st in run defense, giving up an average of 167.3 yards on the ground, running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell have an opportunity to rebound from their disappointing performances in Saint Louis. Running back Reggie Bush, who had his best game of the season against the Rams, will see little if any action on Sunday as he continues to deal with knee issues.

The Saints are due for a breakout game and if the defense can cover Winslow and not make Freeman look like Michael Vick, then the Black and Gold should beat the spread even with some of their defensive stars healing up on the sideline.

Last week’s game wasn’t supposed to be close; this one shouldn’t be close.

Getting By with a Little Help from the ‘Fins

The Miami Dolphins’ defeat of Carolina Panthers on NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football puts the Cats 5.5 games behind the Saints in the NFC South and all-but ending whatever shot they had at winning the division. Carolina will join Tampa Bay as officially eliminated if the Saints win two games or if the Panthers lose one more. In the best case scenario, the Panthers will need to run the table or go 5-1 with help just to get a wild card spot.

The “sick old man” of the NFC South is likely heading to “rebuilding” status next season with major changes in store.

Tie-Breakers Galore

If the Saints beat the Bucs, I’ll provide a list of home-field tie-breaker scenarios next week.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Week 10 Review: Saints Are 9 and Oh Hell...

The New Orleans Saints have set a new franchise record, starting the 2009 season with a 9-0 start and have equaled the longest consecutive winning streak in team history, as the Black and Gold has won nine straight during the 1987 season and through the 1990-1991 seasons.
Whether they set a new record will largely be determined by adjustments that need to be made in order to more effectively stop opposing teams’ running game and the ability of their battered secondary to heal quickly.
As alluded in the preview to this game, a streaking Saints squad faced a spiraling Saint Louis Rams team in 2007 with disappointing results. The difference this time is that the Saints managed to barely escape what in no way could have been considered a “trap game”.
The Rams, to their credit, anticipated much of the Saints’ offensive moves, exploited the Saints’ weak defense against the run and took advantage of a once dominant, now depleted Saints secondary. The Rams also managed to win the time of possession war and went into the second half tied with the undefeated Saints, something equally shocking to fans both donning black and gold and blue and gold in attendance at Edward Jones Dome.
Even the historic victory guaranteeing the Saints a winning season and keeping pace with the primary playoff home-field threat Minnesota Vikings cannot put a happy face on matters. The stadium was as quiet as a mausoleum for most of the game with the crowd not coming alive until the last few minutes of the game. With the stands far off from the field, the Saints offense should have had an easy time communicating.

What I Liked

Not a Whole Hell of a Lot The Saints played one of THE worst teams in the NFL and the game went down to the last pass. The winning team can largely thank the losing team’s quarterback for bad clock-management in the waning seconds of the game. Had there been another thirty seconds or if the Rams had two time-outs, the results would have sent visiting Saints fans somberly walking out of the Edward Jones Dome to a funeral dirge.

The Underrated Get It Done It was a case of the black and gold “goats” beating the Rams on Sunday afternoon, with the wide-receiver nobody wanted picked in the first round of the 2007 draft , a sub-in tight end, the running back everyone wants to see traded and the kick return who was cut, though later resigned, coming through for the Saints.

Wide receiver Robert Meachem had a great 27-yard touchdown reception and 41 yards rushing. Meachem, who has amassed 71 yards rushing the ball this season, seems to be the player most skilled at executed those hated Sean Payton “trick-a-dickory” plays.

Running back Reggie Bush had the finest game of his season with two touchdowns, one on the ground and the other a reception and averaged 5.6 yards per carry AFTER you take out his impressive 55 yard dash. Kick returner Courtney Roby took the opening kick-off of the second half 97 yards for a touchdown, avenging his stumble in Miami.

Tight end David Thomas hauled in five passes for 45 yards, eclipsing starter Jeremy Shockey, who was covered as if he were the president, by three yards.

And finally back-up safety Usama Young, filling in for an injured Darren Sharper, picked off a pass deep in Saints territory. Had Young not also accidentally injured fellow team-mate Tracy Porter on a play, many fans might have forgiven that handicapped parking ticket after this game.

Saint Louis Hospitality Maybe it’s the humility kicking-in during a rough season or perhaps they’re just nice people, but Rams fans should be considered as some of the nicest in the league. Furthermore, the operators of the facility gave the Saints the courtesy of announcing their starters prior to the game in addition to other minor though noticed kindnesses.

Carolina Beats Atlanta The Saints now have a 4.5 lead over the Dirty Birds for the NFC South and the loss will hopefully drive down the price of tickets for when the Saints squad visits the ATL in December. The black and gold could potentially wrap up the division in two weeks.

O-Line Has a Solid Game Quarterback Drew Brees had more time to throw against the Rams than he has had in the previous few games. Though Brees’s numbers were not outstanding, the quarterback had the protection to make key plays.

$10 Parking under the Saint Louis Arch Hard not to remember where you parked your car, only a few blocks away from the Edward Jones Dome and a relatively low price.

What I Didn’t Like

Jekyll and Hyde Defense Running back Steven Jackson amassed 100 yards in the first half alone. In the second half, the Jackson was held to 31. Whether due to Jackson’s exhaustion or changes in the Saints defense, the Rams’ running game ground to a halt after half-time. Some solace could be found in that Jackson ran for even more yards against the Indianapolis Colts defense in week 7.

Conservative Play Calling I would have never thought such a condemnation would ever come from me regarding a Sean Payton team but when it came apparent that the Saints were not having much luck running up the middle against the Rams, Brees should have taken his chances throwing the ball more. While incompletions can stop the clock, a first down would’ve ended the game with the Saints’ offense kneeling the ball instead of their defense trying to swat away deep shots to the end zone. Maybe the two picks made Payton and Brees gun-shy about passing the ball towards the end of the game, though the futility of running up the middle against the Rams’ line made turning over the ball via punt or downs (as was the case) more of a likelihood.

Ain’t Going Nowhere Fast Saints running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell averaged 3.5 yards per carry. Which begs the question, why Payton didn’t greater utilize Bush against a clearly winded Rams defense?

Marques’s Worst Game/Best Play Wide receiver Marques Colston had two catches for 17 yards and the end zone fumble that resulted in a touchback that gave the Rams new life. Colston’s play of the game was catching the Rams’ onside kick with less than three minutes left.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Week Ten Preview: Saints Hobble in to Saint Louis

One of the most regrettable aspects of the realignment of NFL teams for the 2002 season was the removal of the Saint Louis Rams from the New Orleans Saints’ schedule. While the Black and Gold’s big rival are the ATL Dirty Birds, the Saints have a special history with the Rams. The two teams have faced off 67 times since 1967 with only the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco Forty-Niners having played the Saints in more games.
Two of the Saints’ biggest games were against the Rams.
I remember the excitement in the Superdome on New Year’s Eve 1990 when kicker Morten Andersen booted the game winning field goal against the then-Los Angels Rams that earned the Saints a wild-card berth in the playoffs.
I was also there ten years later, when (Saint Louis Rams punt returner) “Hakim dropped the ball” and the Saints won their first ever playoff game.
The two teams had an intense rivalry developing during the Saints’ last days as part of the NFC West, a division they had been a part of since 1970.
The former twice-a-year opponents have only met twice after the Saints and Falcons went to the NFC South. The first match-up was a Rams 28-17 win during the ugly Katrina season when the Saints won a total of three games.
The other was an ugly loss by the Saints during what was an ugly season for Saint Louis.
After dropping their first four games in the Black and Gold’s bid to have a strong follow-up to their relatively successful 2006 season, the Saints had won four in a row to even out their record going into a hapless opponent. At that time, the Rams had dropped eight in a row and the Saints were expected to extend their winning streak to five against a weak team.
Unfortunately for the Saints, things didn’t work out that way.
New Orleans suffered a demoralizing defeat at home and gave the Rams their first win of the season.
If you wanted to know why so many seasoned Saints fans were so nervous going into the Detroit season-opener, it’s because bad teams generally end their losing streaks at the Saints’ expense, with the most infamous example being the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977, which ended their 26 game skid, a loss that cost Saints coach Hank Stram his job.
Though the Rams were spiraling, it was a game where the winless squad looked like all-stars: quarterback Marc Bulger had a completion rate of 82%, passed for 302 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Running back Steven Jackson ran for 76 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps adding the greatest insult to injury, Jackson also passed for a touchdown and running back Antonio Pittman, who had been drafted and cut by the Saints in 2007, had a 43-yard run against them.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for 272 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The most telling statistic for the Saints failure was in their running game: the Black and Gold had only 11 rushing attempts compared to 34 by the Rams, signifying coach Sean Payton’s obsession with the passing game that for all intents and purposes resulted in scuttling two promising seasons.

Key Differences in 2009
The undefeated Saints will travel to Saint Louis to face an opponent whose record is not much better than the one they faced two years ago. The Rams are 1-7 and have scored a whopping 77 points, the least in the NFL. It should be noted that the Saints have scored more points in their first two games.
Though on the road, Brees will be playing indoors against a team whose defense is ranked 23rd against the pass. Even better for the Saints’ Committee on Rushing and Fleur-de-Leaping, the Rams are 27th at stopping the run.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams have given up the fourth most points in the league with 221.
Where the Rams have done well this season is on the ground, where Jackson has racked up the third most rushing yards in the league. The biggest weakness in the Saints’ defense this season, especially in the last three games, has been giving up big running plays. If Jackson has a game similar to Ricky Williams, Michael Turner and DeAngelo Williams, then Who Dat fans should keep smelling salts and IVs handy this Sunday.
There should be no reason for the team to have to “escape” Saint Louis with a win and I would be disappointed if the Saints don’t pummel the Rams the same way they stomped the Lions in Detroit last season, though the Saints’ injury list going into the game should make Saints fans nervous.

Odds and End

Odds maker Danny Sheridan currently has the Saints as 13.5 favorites. Though they are facing a weak opponent and that the Saints have covered the spread in 6 of 8 games, the Black and Gold have failed to cover in their last two games, though the Atlanta game was somewhat of an aberration since running back Mike Bell failed to hold on to the ball on what should have been a standard clock-run down carry.
The biggest question about the Saints’ ability to cover the spread is related to their most recent injury update: eight players did not practice on Wednesday, most notably defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who is still nursing an injury from the Miami game and is likely out until the New England Monday Night Football game; cornerback Jabari Greer, who injured his groin against Carolina; safety Darren Sharper, who has a knee injury; wide receiver Marques Colston, who has the flu; and wide receiver Lance Moore and center Jonathan Goodwin, who are both dealing with ankle injuries.
If Sharper, Greer and Colston play then I would be tempted to give the points. However, if the two star defensive backs are out, then we might see what we got out of this year’s first round draft pick aside from his play on special teams. If Colston and Moore are out, running back Reggie Bush will have his chance to shine or give more fodder to the legion of haters out there.
The only good news is that linebacker Scott Fujita had a limited practice.
If you’re a betting man, the question is this: are the Saints’ scrubs better than the Rams’ first-string players? Good enough to win straight up? Probably. Good enough to win by two touchdowns? Perhaps, but I felt a hell of a lot more confident taking the 14 points in the Carolina game than I do giving them against the Rams.

Monday, November 9, 2009

GOP Has Cow Over Cao Health Vote

“How dare thou Joe Cao?” asks displeased Republicans around the country in reaction to the New Orleans congressman’s vote for the Democratic national health care plan on Saturday night.
The Republican first-term U.S. Representative from a decidedly Democratic district has gone from being the future of the GOP, according to a then-euphoric House minority leader John Boehner, to quisling for crossing party lines on a number of occasions, most notably by providing the lone GOP vote for the ObamaCare.
That said, I’ll explain Cao’s vote, though not defend it. While I would not have voted that way, I also would’ve never been elected to represent Louisiana’s Second District in Congress.
Most observers felt that the Justice Department had a better chance of getting Jefferson out of office than Cao. But barely enough New Orleans voters (The Gambit excepted) had had enough of the stench of Jefferson’s political success in spite of marked bills found in his freezer. Republicans, independents, white liberals and a smattering of black voters combined to give Republican a modest 1,814 vote margin over the tainted Democratic congressman.
For all practical purposes, Joseph Cao’s name that day was “Anybody But Jefferson”.
The eyes of the national party, still swollen from the beating delivered by Obama and the Democrats the month before, could only make out through the haze a historic win by a Republican in a black-majority district, leading to Boehner’s now infamous ejaculation.
While hardly a seasoned politician, Cao was wise enough to recognize the circumstances of his win.
If Cao were to survive to redistricting in 2011, he could not afford to march lock step in one of the nation’s most hostile congressional districts for a Republican candidate.
Cao the Catholic announced he would not budge on the issue of abortion; Cao the congressman who would like to have a shot in hell at another term would be flexible on other matters under the guise of representing his constituents, who are mostly black and Democrat.
So what is the significance of Cao’s vote for ObamaCare? Well if you’re of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mindset, you can publicly grasp at the straw of bipartisan support, then again from her perspective last Tuesday was a Democratic success.
Cao’s lone vote would not have made the difference in the passage of the ObamaCare and hardly gives the legislation the distinction of being “bipartisan”. If anything, the opposition to it was far more bipartisan as 39 Democrats joined with 99.5% of House Republicans in voting against it.
What is the upside for Cao? There might not be one short of a few invitations to White House dinners and perhaps arriving back in his home country via Air Force One if the president invites him to tag along on a diplomatic run to Hanoi.
Politically this move that isn’t going to win any more votes he didn’t receive in 2008. The stark reality of the Second Congressional District is that a whopping 46.8% of the electorate in a low-turnout race voted to maintain the embarrassment of having an ineffective crook occupying a seat in Congress during New Orleans’ continuing recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
If Cao’s vote on health care moved just ten of Jefferson’s 31,318 votes then that’s plenty though not nearly enough to survive a turnout spiked by US Senator David Vitter’s presence on the ballot and the reality that the national Democrats are going to make it rain in the Second District in order to take back the seat.
Procedural votes reflecting and policy posturing reflecting the views of his constituents won’t counter the fact he is a Republican, even if not a stalwart.
Democratic State Representative Cedric Richmond, who talked tough against Jefferson when he ran against him in the Democratic primary but lost his voice when “Dollar Bill” was in the runoff with someone else, immediately piped up, issuing a statement condemning Cao for previous votes that hampered the passage of the health care bill. Richmond has already announced his intention to run against Cao in 2010.
Another consequence of Cao’s ObamaCare vote is that the embattled congressman will have trouble raising money via direct mail solicitations from Republican donors outside of his district. In this partisan-charged environment, Ronald Reagan’s “80-20 adage” is an anachronism.
Since taking office, Cao has walked an ideological tightrope, supporting hate-crimes legislation with expanded protection for gays, which is an accurate reflection of a district that includes the French Quarter and the Marigny, while opposing Cap and Trade and the stimulus. But the latter is forgotten by conservatives but not by Democrats who will be sure to bring up those votes at a time of Cao’s least convenience.
The phrase “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” could not better describe Cao’s political situation.
Rather than react with rage, Republicans should happily accept whatever conservative votes Cao casts between now and the end of his two-year term, for they are far more in number than those cast by his predecessor and far more than those that will be cast by the Democrat who succeeds him.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Week Nine Review: Saints Keep It Interesting, Unbeaten

The Black and Gold are in unchartered waters as they've notched their first ever 8-0 start in the franchse history. Aside from the obvious (no losing season and they can assure themselves a winning season by defeating the hapless Rams in Saint Louis next Sunday), the Saints continue their 3.5 lead over the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South, are now 2-0 in their division and maintain their one game lead over the Minnesota Vikings, who were off this week, for first in the conference.
Going into the Miami game, the Saints had an impressive streak of having never trailed throughout the season. Since then the team has had to dig itself out of a hole caused by offensive errors and bad tackling against the run by the defense.
The Carolina Panthers' convincing win over the Arizona Cardinals last week showed that they were a better team than their 3-4 record indicated and ended their quarterback speculation with their strong running game and Jake Delhomme's improved playing.
Though the Saints rallied to defeat two teams whose running backs had frustrated their defense, the Panthers proved to be more methodical, keeping the ball on the ground at all costs thus minimizing the potential for a pick-6 from the Saints' wolf-pack secondary.
Eventually the Saints defense improved against Carolina's running attack in the second half, putting the game on Delhomme's shoulders. To his credit, the Panthers qb didn't through a single interception, which he had distributed generously at the start of the season, though it would not be enough after the Panthers fell prey to a critical error at the end of the game.

The Unusual Suspects

The heroes of this game were players that don't generally stand out. Though quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jeremy Shockey, wide receiver Marques Colston and free safety Darren Sharper did not have awful games, the big plays were made by lower profile personnel and others who have been criticized for their lack of production in the past season.

Wide Receiver Robert Meachem, the man nobody wanted drafted and who has taken a beaten in the blogosphere, came up big today with wideout Lance Moore injured, with five receptions for 98 yards, including a touchdown.

Running Back Reggie Bush Sure he didn't go flying like Superman but he did his job with plays that moved the ball. Bush had seven receptions for 37 yards (including an impressive one handed snag) and two runs for 16 yards.

Running Back Pierre Thomas scrambled for an impressive touchdownand fifty yards and five receptions for 31 yards, including one for 17 yards.

Kicker John Carney Sunday could have been his last day with the organization had he muffed a potential game winning field goal. Instead the vetertan booted in three that kept the Saints in the game and gave the team its first lead on a day when Saints and NFL all-time leading scorer kicker Morten Andersen was honored as an inductee in the Saints' Hall of Fame.

Defensive Tackle Anthony Hargrove forced a fumble and had two fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown.

Defensive End Will Smith sacked Delhomme twice.

Cornerback Tracy Porter forced two fumbles and safety Pierson Prioleau also recovered a fumble.

Strong Safety Roman Harper and linebacker Jonathan Vilma each had 12 tackles on the day.

Did You Notice?

After wide receiver Marques Colston's reception in the end zone was ruled incomplete, the Saints sideline was animated with Brees insisting coach Sean Payton throw the red challenge flag while one of the coaches near Payton was flailing his arms down, insisting it was incomplete and not to risk losing a timeout. Payton hesistated but stood by his qb who did not have the advantage as others watching from above. The ruling on the field was confirmed though the gesticulating was noticeable even from row 30 in the Terrace level.

Another Monkey Off His Back

Payton, who earlier this season coached his first successful game after a bye week, got to snap another unpleasant streak finally defeating the Panthers in the Superdome. Consequently, Delhomme's unbeaten record as a starting quarterback in the dome came to an end.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Saints vs. Panthers Preview: The Admiral Ackbar Bowl?

“It’s a trap!” exclaimed Rebel armada commander Admiral Ackbar when facing what he did realize was an armed and fully operational Death Star in Return of the Jedi.
The New Orleans Saints open up a 14 point favorite against the Carolina Panthers this Sunday afternoon in the Superdome. Though the Black and Gold had covered the spread in every game going into Monday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons (and would have covered in that game as well had Saints running back Mike Bell had better ball control), two full-touchdowns sounds like a lot against a team Sean Payton has yet to beat in the Superdome (Saints haven’t beaten the Panthers in New Orleans since 2001).
Despite a 3-4 record, the Panthers have shown signs of life as of late. Last Sunday, they defeated the Arizona Cardinals in the desert by score of 34-21. The Panthers also have the fifth best running game in the league and the top passing defense in football.
The Saints struggled against Falcons running back Michael Turner on Monday night. Turner, who wasn’t having that good of a season until then, racked up 151 ground yards against the Saints’ run defense.
Former Saints back-up quarterback Jake Delhomme’s tenure as quarterback has been questioned for much of the early part of the 2009 season, having thrown 13 interceptions and lost two fumbles already. Looking to avoid giving the game to the Saints’ very dangerous secondary, expect the Panthers to keep the ball on the ground for much of the game, taking their chances against a Sedrick Ellis-less Saints defensive line.
Turnovers will largely decide this game: can the Saints jump to an early lead to put the fate of the game on Delhomme’s shoulders or will Saints quarterback Drew Brees be forced into making bad throws.
An advantage the Saints have is that the Carolina defense has not had much success stopping the run, ranking 24th in the NFL allowing 127.6 yards per game on the ground. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Bell need to establish the ground game early to wear down the Carolina defense but also give Brees some breathing room, something he didn’t have much of in the first half of the Falcons game.
Carolina is trying to return to playoff contention: a loss to a division rival will complicate matters for the Panthers. The road doesn’t get any easier for them with the Patriots, Falcons, Jets, Giants, Dolphins, Vikings and a rematch against the Saints in Bank of America Stadium in the season finale. A loss on Sunday could mean the beginning of the end of their season.
Sean Payton has gotten the bye-week monkey off his back; will he finally beat the Panthers under the dome? Probably. But not by 14 points or more.
Carolina represents the Saints toughest opponent until after Thanksgiving, when they face the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. With Minnesota having lost only one game so far, and then to an AFC team, the Saints cannot afford to lose any NFC games until the Vikings start to stumble- and they have a fairly easy schedule for the remainder of the season. A loss to Carolina drops the Saints below the Vikings as the second team in the NFC. If the Saints want to host the NFC Championship game, the Saints need to be perfect and avoid re-enacting the sloppy play against Atlanta.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Week Eight Review: Saints Are 7-0, But Not Perfect

Against Miami last week, the Black and Gold found a way to win. Against Atlanta on Monday night, they almost found a way to lose.
There’s no denying the importance of a win against Atlanta, no matter how ugly it was. The Saints record their first divisional win and against their biggest threat for the NFC West. With the victory, the Saints enjoy a 3.5 game lead over the ATL and in the big picture, one game ahead of the Minnesota Vikings for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Saints played sloppy presenting the desperate Dirty Birds with opportunities to climb back into a game that the home team should have put away well before the final seconds ticked down.

What I Liked

Sean Payton’s Play-Calling Saints hit a near even balance with quarterback Drew Brees passing 33 times and the Saints running the ball 35 and not force-feeding the ball running back Reggie Bush, who has struggled as receiver, punter returner and running back this season.

Drew Dat Brees connects on 25 of his 33 passing attempts for a 76% completion rate with two touchdowns and a scramble for four yards. Brees spread the ball to eight different receivers for 308 yards with wide receiver Marquis Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey combining for 157 yards.

Pierre Thomas Keeps Making a Name for Himself Maybe the Saints’ resident superstar should take some notes on the play of the undrafted Thomas? Number twenty-three ran for 91 yards, including a 22 yard touchdown and made two catches for nine yards, including a one yard touchdown reception.

Saints’ “Second-Line” Marches In (Again) Though some big plays were given up, the defensive backs snared three of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan’s passes with cornerback Jabari Greer taking one back to the house for six and cornerback Tracy Porter, with help from linebacker Jonathan Vilma, stopped an Atlanta score with a pick deep in Saints territory. Strong safety Roman Harper had seven tackles. If the Saints go to the Super Bowl, it’ll be not just because of Brees’s arm but the secondary’s hands.

Smith Earns His Pay Today Defensive end Will Smith had a great game had two sacks.

SupaFreak69 Strikes Again Fill-in defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove gets a sack.

Poor Atlanta Clock Management Towards the Close of he First Half

What I Didn’t Like

Ding-Bell Plays WWL radio sports commentators encouraged the Saints gambling community to lay down the ten points and with two minutes left it looked like those who gave the points were going to collect…up until running back Mike Bell’s poor ball control during what was supposed to be a standard clock burning run. Running back Pierre Thomas turned over the ball as did Brees, once on a fumble that was run back for an Atlanta touchdown and an interception. Thomas’s celebratory extended-hula dance drew a flag. There’s nothing amusing about giving your opponents good field position due to unnecessary monkey-shining, one of seven penalties the Saints incurred for 65 yards.

Not So Special Teams Kick-off coverage was poor. Kicker John Carney missed a field goal. Atlanta recovers their on-side kick late in the fourth quarter after the ball bounced out of tight end Dave Thomas’s hands. On the upside, kick returner Courtney Roby averaged 29 yards on his three returns and punter Thomas Morstead averaged 40 yards on his two punts.

Turner Runeth Over Atlanta running back Michael Turner was having a disappointing season up until the Monday night game. Turner racked up 151 yards on the ground, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. The Saints’ run defense needs to be improved going into a run-happy Carolina Panthers team this Sunday.

Facts of the Week

The last time the Saints started 7-0 was in 1991 when the Black and Gold won the NFC West with an 11-5 record.

As of Week 9, six of the Saints’ next nine opponents have losing records.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bidding Farewell to My Political "Grandfather"

Last Thursday, I lost a good friend, Republicans lost the trailblazing leader most responsible of getting the party “out of the phone booth” and Louisiana lost one of the most honorable leaders to hold high office with the passing of Dave Treen.
The first time I had a conversation with the former governor was in 1992, when he was running then-President George H.W.Bush’s re-election campaign. Our talk pertained to the Louisiana Republican State Committee, a board that I had planned on running for that Fall but couldn’t as I missed the minimum age requirement by a few days.
Treen went into great detail, something he was known to do on virtually any matter, about the mechanics of the governing board and even mailed me information on the subject.
After the Bush defeat, I made a point of keeping in touch with the former governor, inviting him to speak to the LSU College Republicans, something he graciously did on a regular basis. During a dinner with the leadership at The Chimes before his speech, Treen had mentioned that he had regretted winning governor in 1979 as he was happiest when serving in Congress.
After US Representative Bob Livingston resigned from office during the Clinton impeachment debate, I wrote a letter to the editor in the Times Picayune arguing that the former governor would be the most logical successor to Livingston as Treen knew the system and would be an ideal compromise candidate for the staunch Republican district. Treen called me up the morning it appeared to thank me for the gesture and asked that I help him if he entered the race.
The Treen for Congress campaign seemed unstoppable: it had the most political endorsements, media support and national backing from both Livingston and some of Treen’s former colleagues who had moved up the ladder with Newt Gingrich’s take over of Congress. Unfortunately, people who didn’t understand the new political environment and the dynamics of a special election ran the show.
While Treen’s advisors were encouraging the former governor to base his message on Washington contacts, opposing term-limits (!) and “bringing home the bacon”, I strongly urged that he run hard to the right to outflank David Vitter, who had “burned his ships” by resigning his seat in the state House of Representatives to drive out turn out in his district and heavily invested in his long-shot bid.
My voice was generally drowned out by the professionals and civic leaders and from then on I mailed Treen weekly memos pleading to establish himself more as a conservative candidate, something he was but whose credentials as such were often lost in his “qualified answers”. After the campaign ended, Treen sent me a letter thanking me for my unsolicited advice and asked me to keep in touch.
I took the man at his word.
The next year when I was seeking re-election to the Louisiana Republican State Committee, Governor Treen happily signed a letter of endorsement, which proved essential in countering the opposition I had to contend with from a millionaire social moderate State Senator.
Treen once again came to my aid when I sought a seat on the Saint Bernard Parish Council. Treen’s support proved crucial as voters who would not ordinarily take a twenty-six year old candidate seriously were more inclined to do so at the recommendation of a former governor. Treen also supported me in two unsuccessful runs for the state legislature and headlined a fundraiser for me in my 2007 run.
Treen didn’t have to do any of these things.
That he was willing to sign his name next to that of a supporter shows how much he valued loyalty and that it was a two-way street. Treen never let the prestige of the high offices he once held or his historical significance in Louisiana politics stop him from helping out others in small races, which made him different from not just most, but almost all other politicians, in Louisiana and elsewhere.
It’s that kind of unconventional thinking that led Treen to put his name out there on behalf someone else: convicted Democratic governor Edwin Edwards, a move has baffled many fellow Republicans and almost led to a censure from the state GOP that was mercifully and quietly quashed by the Louisiana Republican leadership.
While many people look at the imprisoned Edwards as just a crooked politician who finally got his just desserts, Treen viewed the continued incarceration fellow ex-governor as unconscionable because of Edwards’s advanced age.
To truly appreciate Treen’s public position on this matter one should be cognizant of the history between these two rival politicians.
Edwards defeated Treen twice for the state’s top office and on the second occasion tormented the Republican incumbent with brutal taunts (example: “Dave Treen is so slow that it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes”) and unseated him by a landslide.
While many petty politicians would be inclined to dance on the graves of their enemies, there was Treen, risking his personal reputation and his stature as a Republican leader on behalf of a man who made his political life a living hell.
Regardless of your opinion concerning whether Edwards’s prison sentence should be commuted (a pardon was never advocated by Treen), one must admire the former governor’s capacity to personally forgive his opponent and willingness to risk his public standing due to his conscience.
It could be said that Dave Treen was a better Christian than he was a Republican, and that in no way is a bad thing.