And so the Saints stumble into the playoffs with only their in-the-Dome romp over Tampa to give the fans any overt confidence. New Orleans has the NFC's lowest playoff seed, which means the Saints will be on the road for as long as they are alive—and, if 2013's previous road performances are any indication, they may not be alive very long.
But there may be reasons for legitimate hope. Two reasons, specifically.
The first reason is one I've written about extensively over at the Black & Gold Review: The Saints have faced an extremely difficult schedule in 2013, and so they might be better than their low playoff seed would indicate. Over the past few years, several mere wildcards who faced similarly difficult schedules during the regular season have showed their true quality in the playoffs. They include, over the past decade, several Super Bowl winners, like Baltimore, Green Bay, and the New York Giants.
The second reason also involves those teams: It's the way they were built, what they were good at. The Saints are built just like them.
Let's take a look.
The Wildcard Success Model
Recent successful wildcard teams share two features: A strong pass rush during the playoffs and a big-play passing attack.
Take last season's Ravens, for example.
The Ravens had a middling pass rush during the regular season, and Joe Flacco is hardly the most statistically prolific of NFL quarterbacks. During the playoffs, though, Baltimore's pass rush came alive, producing three sacks in their wildcard game, three more in their divisional game, and another three in the Super Bowl.
Even in the playoffs, Flacco wasn't necessarily efficient—his completion percentage was below 60—but he was mistake-free and produced a lot of big plays, averaging more than 8 yards per pass in three of his four games, and producing more than 12 yards per attempt during his team's opening round win over Indianapolis.
For the 2011 Giants everything was about the same. That team, despite barely making the playoffs at all, produced the third-most sacks in the NFL during the regular season, and Eli Manning played fine football during the playoffs.
The previous year's wildcard Packers? Yeah. Same thing. Lots of sacks, strong play from Aaron Rodgers, and a Super Bowl title.
The 2013 Saints produced the fourth-most sacks of any NFL team. With the twelve-sack tandem of Cam Jordan and Junior Galette, the Saints' defense is built like those that have helped produce successful wildcard teams in recent years.
And most importantly the Saints have Drew Brees.
The combination of the aforementioned doesn't ensure the Saints will take home another championship. The team might fail in Philadelphia in the same way they've failed during other big road trips this year. And even if they get past the Eagles, the Saints will have to face Seattle. We know how that went last time.
But the ingredients for playoff success are there. The Saints just have to put them together at the right time, starting on Saturday.
For more on the Saints, New Orleans, and everything in the margins, check out the Black & Gold Review.