Clay A. Smith
If after three consecutive weeks of high octane football you still find yourself at an impasse, too disheartened by a lingering legacy of sub par performances and promises of next year to allow yourself to revel in the phenomenon that is the '09 Saints-you're probably a Falcons fan. But its okay, because even a "dirty bird" knows a good thing when it sees one.
Still, who could blame fans for being skeptical-questioning their blind allegiance to a team that in return, rewards years of unflinching fanaticism, with seasons uninspired futility. The faithful, those with constitutions strong enough to stomach everything from Arron Brooks' apathy to Jason Davids' almost "cartoonish" incompetence, await with bated breathe. They've witnessed first hand how a losing streak can turn into a tradition of losing.
However, after droning through decades of middling under achievers, the Saints appear to have finally assembled the right components for a legitimate Super Bowl run. Its no secret that the past three years the Saints' offense has been unrivaled, with Drew Brees making house hold names out of relative unknowns like Devery Henderson and Lance Moore. Sadly though, New Orleans' defense was never able to match their offensive prowess, idled by units ill equipped for post season success. Saints' fans have endured it all: patch work secondaries, conservative play calling, a consistently inconstant pass rush. You name it, and they've probably seen it.
New Orleans had hoped that the arrival of noted guru Gregg Williams would remedy their defensive woes. But two games and 93 points into the regular season, and all the hype surrounding Williams' "exotic blitz schemes and attitude adjustments" quickly became an after thought-second to another white hot start by the team's offense. Even so, Williams' presence immediately netted dividends in the turnover department, with seven IN the first two games.
Of course "rationalists" were quick to highlight strength of schedule as the primary reason for the Saints' success-attributing the seven turnovers, of which six were interceptions (tied with the Packers for most in the league), to teams' inability to keep up with such a prolific offense. After all, they'd only played the Lions (who hadn't won a game since December of '07) and the Eagles (who were playing with out All-Pro QB Donovan McNabb). And even then they'd surrendered over twenty points in each contest.
But this past Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Saints' defense finally supplanted itself amongst the NFL's elite, with a performance that vaulted them into the top 10. Their much maligned pass rush was unrelenting. DE Charles Grant had two sacks, DE Will Smith, a Sack and an interception. DT Sedrick Ellis also had a sack, but it was his constant pressure on Bills QB Trent Edwards that was the difference. Ellis was in Edwards' face all day, and the Saints' re tooled secondary held WR Terrell Owens without a catch for the first time since 1996, his rookie year. In fact, Buffalo only gained 243 total yards-the Saints nearly matched that with their running game alone (222 yards).
Sunday's upcoming game against the 3-0 Jets should serve as a barometer for where the Saints stand with a quarter of the season in the books. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez has made a seamless transition from the college game to the pros, and the Jets' number three ranked defense has stymied opponents allowing a paltry eleven points a game.
So maybe the Saints are for real, a team destined to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Maybe we can finally lay to rest our brown paper bags and for the first time ever, proudly show our faces at sports bars outside of Louisiana. The truth is its too early to tell. I've never seen a champion crowned in October, and there are a lot of teams in waiting-dead set in to proving that these guys are just the "same old Saints." Sports illustrated has the "black and gold" ranked at number two behind the Ravens, but there is still a strong contingency that feels like the Saints will forever and always be the joke of the NFL. Which leaves but one question. With a 3-0 record, a top 10 defense, and the number one ranked offense, who's laughing now?
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