The New Orleans Saints are 1-4 — not a record the team or its fans would have predicted several months ago. The Saints' 31-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers in their last matchup has everyone asking: Can this season be salvaged? And can the Saints win enough games over the next 11 weeks to make it into the post-season?
A look at past history and a peek into the future may provide us with enough information to formulate intelligent guesses. Let's spend the bye week taking a look at why the Saints could make the playoffs and why Saints fans may have to wait till next year for a shot at a second Super Bowl.
Why the Saints can pull it off
Many people, myself included, didn't think the suspensions of head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt would affect the team as adversely as they have. There is no question that Payton's and Vitt's influence and demeanor on game days could have helped the team's attitude — and its ability to hold on to an 18-point third-quarter lead against the Kansas City Chiefs and a 6-point fourth-quarter lead against the Green Bay Packers. The first time the NFL allowed Payton and Vitt into the Superdome — to watch Saints quarterback Drew Brees break Johnny Unitas' 52-year-old record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass — the Saints pulled off their first win of the year.
Vitt's return Oct. 15 could provide an infusion of energy, leadership and stability, all of which have been missing for the past six weeks.
Offensively, the Saints seem to be getting back to form. When they return to action at Tampa Bay Oct. 21, the team will be coming off a second straight 400-plus-yard offensive performance. Brees appears to be his old self again, passing for 816 yards and seven touchdowns with just one interception.
There also are signs of improvement on defense. While Kansas City scored 21 unanswered points in week three, the Saints defense held the Chiefs to just one touchdown. Green Bay started out hot but managed just seven points against the Saints in the second half. The Saints sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers five times, forced yardage losses with six tackles and forced two big turnovers, including one that clinched the win.
A number of players also are stepping up on both sides of the ball, including receiver Marques Colston, defensive end Martez Wilson and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. The bye week may allow linebackers David Hawthorne, Jonathan Casillas and defensive end Turk McBride, who are healing from injuries, to return to action.
Finally, in the past the Saints have gone on long winning streaks. They won 13 straight games in 2009, and after a 0-4 start in 2007, the Saints won four games straight and ended the season 8-8, second in the NFC South. The combined win-loss record of the remaining opponents is 19-20 heading into this week's action, and the Saints should be scrapping hard to at least balance their win-loss numbers.
Why the Saints can't pull it off
The Saints' biggest challenge is to continue improving on both sides of the ball and maintain a winning momentum throughout the 11 games remaining in the regular season.
Last year, the two NFC wild card teams finished the season 10-6. For the Saints to reach that mark, they must win nine of their next 11 games. The Saints still must play the Atlanta Falcons twice, three teams in the NFC East and a San Francisco 49ers team that has won its last two games by a margin of 79-3.
Even if a few defensive players return from injuries after the bye week, will it make a difference? The Saints lack team speed on defense and face a handful of teams that like to run the ball.
Can they do it? Well, games still have to be played, and one thing's for sure: The Saints aren't going to mail it in. All that's left for fans to do is sit back and watch to see if the Black and Gold can pull off a miracle march to the playoffs.