NEW ORLEANS — According to NFL analysts, the New Orleans Saints, one of two 10-0 teams in the NFL, don’t have what it takes to be 10-0.
Off to their best start in franchise history, the Saints have found themselves in the hunt for the one thing which has always eluded the team even in their best years: a whole new way to be completely and utterly dismissed by the experts.
NFL power rankings consistently feature the Saints and the Indianapolis Colts in the top two spots. Commentary generally praises the Colts for pulling off close wins, while questioning how long the Saints can last after blowout victories.
“Drew Brees is a monster quarterback, but it’s too early to put him in the class of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brett Favre,” said Pat Kirwan of NFL.com, of the quarterback currently ranked No. 2 overall in the NFL, between Favre and Manning, and three spots above Brady. “And, boy, how about that Brett Favre!”
Kirwan then spent the next 30 minutes talking about Favre.
“Simply put, the Minnesota Vikings would blast the Saints anywhere at any time. Why? Two words: Favre. Peterson,” Kirwan said. “They drive that team to excellence. The Saints are simply too balanced to match that star wattage.”
Former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz, also of NFL.com, voiced similar concerns about the Saints’ defense.
“And how about that New Orleans defense? They’ve given up 204 points already this season,” Martz said. “Moreover, they’ve completed just 20 interceptions and have scored only seven touchdowns in 2009. The Saints’ defense is, at best, a mediocre offense.”
Will Holt of Bleacher Report is even more blunt: “The Saints suck. They’re the cheapest 10-0 team in history. Their schedule is so easy, I’m pretty sure I saw some Pop Warner teams on there. Who have they played? The Giants? They lost four in a row after the Saints beat them. The Jets slid, too. Every time they’ve played an undefeated team this season, that team has fallen into a severe rut. It’s almost like New Orleans is literally generating losers every time they take the field.
“Name one team that the Saints have played that were better than them. You can’t do it. I rest my case.”
Some sports experts have more faith in the Saints. In its Nov. 16 issue, Sports Illustrated picked the Saints to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in a glance box placed at the end of a six-page story on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the cover of the issue was New Orleans’ favorite golden-boy quarterback — Peyton Manning.
The Big Easy to Overlook
Football fans in New Orleans have endured decades of losing. In this notorious party town, winning has almost always taken a backseat to just letting les bon temps rouler. This combination of laissez-faire attitude and lovable losership has given a rough edge to even the most hard-core Saints fan, who even in the glory years always seems to be waiting for the countdown to collapse.
“I’ve been a fan since the first disappointing loss back in 1967,” said season-ticket holder Jeff Robideaux of Metairie. “And ever since, the Saints have always found a way to lose that keeps me coming back for more. But this year is unbelievable. I can’t believe how bad they are at losing! It’s at epic proportions. Bench Brees! Fire Payton! Who Dat?”
Analyst and native New Orleanian Marshall Faulk, at least, recognizes the Saints’ high-powered offense, its potent defense and the team’s ability to find wins even with several key injuries and huge deficits to overcome.
“New Orleans is the most complete team in the NFL,” Faulk said. “With that in mind, I don’t think it’s too early to forecast a Vikings-Colts Super Bowl.”
Former New Orleans head coach Mike Ditka, now of ESPN, thinks the Saints can run the table. “New Orleans can beat every team on their schedule. But they probably won’t.
“When I coached the Saints, they sucked,” he said, referring to his 1997-99 tenure. “I’ll bet Billy Joe Tolliver doesn’t even show up Monday night.”
And what a Monday night. In less than a week, the unproven 10-0 New Orleans Saints welcome the majestic, dynastic New England Patriots (7-3) to the Superdome in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football. The game is being touted as one of the biggest of the year, particularly because an undefeated season is on the line.
“Any game featuring the Patriots is going to be huge,” Pat Kirwan said. “When you think of perfection, you think of the Patriots.
“They went 16-0 in 2007,” he added.
As for the Saints’ prospects, Kirwan isn’t quite convinced.
“Sure, the Saints have come through every time in the clutch. They’ve won blowouts. They’ve won after overcoming serious deficits. They’ve never relinquished a lead all season. They’ve won with their Pro Bowl starters. They’ve won with their backups. They’ve won on the ground, in the air and on defense, at home and on the road. They’ve won pretty much every way there is to win.
“But still, we don’t know how New Orleans would handle a situation in which they take the lead, relinquish the lead, take the lead again and then find themselves down by five after a safety late in the fourth quarter removes the possibility of getting a game-tying field goal as time winds down. Until that happens, I can’t be sure this 10-0 streak isn’t a fluke.”
For their part, Saints players aren’t letting the attention swell their heads.
Head coach Sean Payton has kept his squad’s feet firmly on the ground since arriving from Dallas in 2006.
“We take it one week at a time and don’t live in the past,” said Payton, who famously buried mementoes of the superb 2006 season in a grave as a physical metaphor in 2007. “Maybe one day, everyone else won’t either.”
The team, much like its home city, is full of colorful characters and inspirational tales of redemption.
Defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove has made occasional Page 2 headlines for his comeback story. After a yearlong ban due to substance abuse and a stint in a halfway house, the defensive tackle has been a force for the Saints. He notched a key turnover against Tampa Bay and scored the game-sealing turnover touchdown against Carolina.
“I remain ever-grateful that the Saints gave me a chance to play,” Hargrove said. “I hope my story serves as an inspiration for others in my situation, as soon as anyone ever hears about it.”
As for quarterback Drew Brees, he isn’t listening to any of the naysayers.
“We’re trying to avoid the hype and just get out there and play the best we can,” Brees said. “It’s pretty easy, actually, the avoid the hype.”
(*-Quotes are not actually those of the analysts listed, though for the most part they've all said very similar things.)