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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Saints suck, but so does everyone else

Posted By on Tue, Sep 30, 2014 at 5:31 PM

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Sometimes there's no doubt which teams own the narrative of an NFL season. In 2009, the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, and the Minnesota Vikings were in charge from the start, and quickly established themselves as the best teams in the league; last year, the Denver Broncos laid claim to the AFC from week one, after quarterback Peyton Manning's stunning 2013 opening day performance for that team, and in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks ensured everything was about Seattle from start to finish. We thought the Saints were going to be that team in 2014; they're not. 

That might be OK.

Saints fans, and probably the Saints themselves, prepared for the 2014 season by preemptively claiming ownership of this year's pro football story. That, really, is what all the off-season hype was about. 

Four trying weeks have made it clear that 2014 isn't about the Saints; they haven't wrested control of the division, the conference  or the narrative the way they did in 2009 or, arguably, in 2011. The past month instead has been about everybody realizing on their own schedules that the Saints just aren't the team we expected. The last people to realize this fact might have been the players on the team.
The first part of Junior Galette's statement in the tweet above is interesting because of its honesty. The second part is interesting because, believe it or not, even after the Saints' awful performance in Dallas, it really isn't over.

It's easy to forget that there are as many, maybe more, seasons without a dominant team as there are seasons with one. The 2013 Seahawks joined the 2009 Saints and  the 2003-2004 Patriots as rampaging juggernauts that ended their runs with titles, but middling teams with horrible regular-season blemishes have succeeded more often than their flashy counterparts. 

The 2011 New York Giants were a bad football team that allowed 33 points per game during a mid-season four-game losing streak and finished the year with one of the worst defenses, statistically, in the league; that defense won New York another Super Bowl. Remember also the 2010 Green Bay Packers, a mediocre 3-3 team that finished its run with a Lombardi Trophy.

The point isn't that the Saints will suddenly turn their season around and win a title. The point is nobody in the NFC this year has the early look of a champion, which means the teams that ultimately win their divisions and make the playoffs will emerge from a pack of apparent also-rans. Only four teams in the conference have more than two wins; nobody in the NFC South has a winning record; the teams tied atop the division, Atlanta and Carolina, were trounced this past week, Atlanta allowing 41 points to the same Minnesota team that the Saints  held without a touchdown a week earlier.

So far, the 2014 season resembles not 2013, or 2009, but 2000, during which the Saints rebounded from a 1-3 start and, feasting on a favorable middle-of-the-season schedule, ripped off six straight wins to take control of the NFC West. The names of opponents on the Saints' 2014 schedule look more intimidating than those the team faced back when, but most of their upcoming opponents are on the same ride as New Orleans: treading water in divisions overstuffed with average-looking football teams. Most important, four of the Saints' next six games are in the Superdome.

Right now, all the Saints can do is find a way to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday in New Orleans. After that, they have a bye week to figure out how to make the defense they deploy on the road less of a disaster. They may not be capable of doing so, in which case this season could end up staying awful.

But there's just as much of a chance that 2014's remaining surprises will be good ones. After all, a Saints win over Tampa —  along with losses by Atlanta and Carolina teams that have, between them, been blown out three times over the last two weeks — would put New Orleans in a sudden tie for first place.

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