Regardless of how the Saints do in the post-season, the Who Dat Nation should take a moment to step back and truly appreciate just how special this team really is. Sure, everyone knows Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and company are incredible football players at the top of their game, but just stop and think about all that's happened in the past 17 weeks:
• Brees became the fastest quarterback to break the 4,000 passing yards barrier on the way to shattering Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for most passing yards in a season.
• Graham broke Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow's 31-year-old record for most receiving yards as a tight end in just his second year in the league and only his third year of playing football (though the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski immediately rebroke the record).
• Sproles broke an 11-year-old record for most all-purpose yards by a player, shattering what little good will Reggie Bush had left in New Orleans by playing Bush's position better than Bush ever could have dreamed of playing it in the NFL.
• Most important, the Saints went undefeated at home for the first time in franchise history. The significance of this cannot be overstated. If you're a Saints fan and you shelled out thousands of dollars for season tickets or managed to score individual game tickets (usually for a couple hundred dollars), you saw a Saints victory.
These are truly heady times for Saints fans everywhere and — while it appears they'll be good for years to come — it's best to take it all in and enjoy it as much as you can while it lasts. Not that there's any indication the Saints will fade anytime soon, but it's astonishing to think the Black and Gold could have had the season they had — losing just three games all season while breaking several significant offensive records in the process — and still end up with only the third seed in the playoffs. What's more amazing is that Brees, Sproles and Graham all had MVP-caliber seasons for the Saints, but only Brees was considered for the award, and he's not guaranteed to win it.
The fact Brees could break a nearly three-decade-old passing record and there would still be a argument about whether he should win the league's MVP award says a lot about the caliber of competition this year. For his part, Brees has done everything in his power to establish one of the most productive seasons ever by a quarterback, and history will recognize him for it. (The jersey he wore when he broke Marino's record is already on display in the NFL Hall of Fame.) But, aside from the passing record, history will have a hard time distinguishing Brees from quarterbacks like the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, who also had top-tier seasons.
Where Brees and the Saints saw a noticeable dropoff in their production last season after winning the Super Bowl, Rodgers and the Packers improved as they began their championship defense. The Packers won 14 games in a row (one more than the Saints did during their Super Bowl run) with just three of those games being decided by a touchdown or less. Meanwhile, Brady took what was, at best, a mediocre team with a porous defense, and carried its members on his back to the top seed in the AFC. While Brees' accomplishments make him one of the greatest ever to play the game, he's also just one of many surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks playing today.
The statistical differences between Brees, Brady and Rodgers are so negligible that any one of their fanbases would have a legitimate gripe if they didn't win the MVP award. In a piece for ESPN's Grantland earlier this season, Bill Barnwell did a statistical analysis of Rodgers and Brees and concluded that the only edge the Packers' quarterback had was that his team beat the Saints in the first game of the season. That game was decided on a goal-line dive in which Saints running back Mark Ingram was tackled at the goal line. Even though both quarterbacks had such stellar seasons with a slew of breakout performances, Barnwell concluded that whoever wins the MVP could "come down to a play made by a linebacker during Week 1 in September."
As Brees would be the first to point out, the statistical recognition will always come second to winning games. Again, the Saints proved more than capable, going 6-1 against teams with winning records this season, including wins against three of the five NFC playoff teams. The Saints' only loss against a winning team was in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers, which was decided on the last play of the game. In those four wins against NFC playoff teams (one each against the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants and two against the Atlanta Falcons), the Saints' average margin of victory was 17 points. The Saints weren't just winning games, they were dominating them, which, in a way, can make the playoffs more stressful for the Who Dat Nation. A record-breaking, high-octane offense may be thrilling to watch, but it also can be a double-edged sword when a team reaches the playoffs. Recent NFL history is littered with electric offenses that failed to win Super Bowls: The 2007 New England Patriots scored a record 589 points but managed just two touchdowns in a Super Bowl loss; the 2004 Indianapolis Colts averaged more than 32 points a game and lost in their first playoff game at home; and the 2000 St. Louis Rams were named "The Greatest Show on Turf" but couldn't make it out of the first round.
Looking at the individual records Saints players broke isn't any more encouraging. Brees and Sproles broke records set by players on teams that lost in the Super Bowl, while Graham's record was set by a man whose team lost in the AFC Championship game. Of course, all of those teams had just one player with an all-time great season and the Saints have the distinct advantage of having four (don't forget that Thomas Morstead also set the record for most touchbacks in a season).
New Orleans also has the advantage of having already won a championship. Being just two years removed from a Super Bowl win gives the team the calming influence of experience. More important, last season's first-round loss galvanized the team's focus when it was needed most. Though the Saints had every reason to be cocky before their first-round matchup against the Detroit Lions (and this was written before that first playoff match), they know that playing their best football in the regular season stops being relevant in the playoffs. As tackle Zach Strief said a day after the Saints creamed the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans' final regular season game, "Us playing well the last few weeks doesn't give us anything but confidence going into it. It doesn't give us a win."
All Brees and the Saints can really do to distinguish themselves is to win multiple Super Bowls. It's one thing to be a great team among a slew of great teams that all won Lombardi Trophies — and something else to be one of the all-time great teams that was able to keep most of the silverware for themselves. Unfortunately, they're not alone. The Packers are still defending champs and the Giants, Steelers and Patriots each have won more than one Super Bowl in the last dozen years. Moreover, teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the Lions, though upstarts, are loaded with talent and are hungry for their first championship. As the 2009 Saints proved, just because your recent history isn't filled with success, that's no reason to count out a team because it could get its act together and take it all.
The deciding factor may be whether the Saints defense can stand up to the gauntlet of opposition that lies between New Orleans and the Lombardi Trophy. In what's been the "Year of the Quarterback," Who Dats should be worried that the Black and Gold defense ranks 30th — 30th! — in the league when it comes to giving up passing yards. The Saints also haven't made up for their defensive shortcomings in creating turnovers like they did two years ago, and they are near the bottom of the league in takeaways this season.
It would be a great surprise if the Saints don't replicate the sort of offensive mastery fans grew accustomed to seeing during the regular season, even when taking into account the increased intensity and smaller margin of error that comes with playoff games.
The real question isn't whether the Saints can be stopped from winning games, but if the Black and Gold can keep others from doing so. In the end, that will be the difference-maker that decides whether this is a great offensive team that managed a lone Super Bowl win — or if this is one of the greatest all-around football teams in history that was able to win multiple titles.