Home turf vs. home tundra.
That is what could be at stake this Sunday when the New Orleans Saints face the visiting New York Giants in what could be the most important game of the year for the Black and Gold.
Of course, this is predicated on the Saints beating out the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South, which the Dirty Birds played against the Niners is not a lock. But back to getting ahead of myself.
Currently there are three undefeated teams in the NFC: the Saints, the Giants and the Minnesota Vikings.
In the arbitrary art of “power rankings”, which have less significance than the WWE rankings one can find in Pro Wrestling Illustrated, sports publications and blogs rank the Giants and Saints (generally in that order) at the top of their conference. Assuming the Vikings falter, conference homefield advantage could be decided on Sunday, as the winner would have a two game lead going into Week Seven the head-up tie-breaker.
As the NFL season trudges deeper into the winter months, northern teams playing in outdoor stadiums gain an edge over warm weather, dome teams.
You don’t need to be Dawn Brown to understand the difference between the Saints playing the Bears at Soldier Field in the NFC Championship versus playing them in the Superdome.
The Meadowlands are not a good place to be in late January.
The New York Giants is the best team in the NFC, if not the NFL. The G-men have the best defense and the second best offense. The upside is that they have garnered this distinction against the league’s versions of the Washington Generals. (Google it!)
That said, the Giants are very much a tough team with the Saints being their first test.
The Saints have the third best offense in terms of yardage, ranking second in rushing and eleventh in passing. Most importantly, they are first in points, averaging 36 a game. The Giants are allowing an average of 14.2 points from their opponents.
Defensively, the Saints rank 6th in yards and 7th in points allowed per games (16.5). While they’re 11th in defending against the pass, the Saints are 7th in rush defense, especially relevant as the Giants like to run the ball (4th in rushing offense).
Two important facts about the Saints defense not necessarily reflected in the stats: they don’t give up the big plays while also making big plays themselves. Turnovers and a bend, don’t break mentality have ably contained opposing offenses. Though their 14th ranking in sacks do not conjure images of the Dome Patrol, there’s no doubting that the Saints defense, particularly the secondary and as of late the defensive ends, have been getting the job done.
One other big plus from the early bye weeks for the Black and Gold is that they’re going into the toughest game of the season finally operating at near full health. The Times Picayune reported that injured tight end Darnell Dinkins, defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, running back Mike Bell, left tackle Jermon Bushrod and wide receiver Lance Moore fully practiced. Moore and Bell are key players to have back for the match-up with the Giants.
While equaling and surpassing all of former coach Jim Haslett’s benchmarks would not seem to be a formidable task, especially the positive ones, there is one accomplishment he has over Sean Payton: Haslett has won a game after a bye week.
Quarterback Drew Brees and fullback Heath Evans have tasted victory after a Saints’ bye week, though they were wearing different uniforms.
The last time the Saints have won a game after a bye was in 2003 against Atlanta.
The Oddsmaker’s Choice
Danny Sheridan of USA Today has the Saints as 3.5 favorite.