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.