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Shutdown Countdown: Sean Payton and Drew Brees always give Saints a shot

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

We found out last season how valuable a great coach is in the NFL.

Here are the Saints' win totals the past five years: 13, 11, 13, 7, 11. The one poor season in that run came when Sean Payton was suspended for a year.

It's easy to point to Payton as the only variable, but the Saints also got a huge boost when Rob Ryan was free to become their defensive coordinator. The Cowboys fired Ryan so they could hire Monte Kiffin (man, how depressing is that sentence for Cowboys fans?) and Ryan had an immediate impact. Without any massive change in personnel, aside from rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans improved from 32nd in total defense in 2012 to fourth last year.

Great coaching isn't just reserved for head coaches.

Of course, life is easier for all coaches when the great Drew Brees is your quarterback. Brees had his third straight 5,000-yard season. A 5,000-yard season was considered the gold standard a few years ago. And really, it still is. It has been reached on eight occasions ... four of those times by Brees. It'll be fun when everyone figures out that Brees is one of the five best quarterbacks of all time and it's not even much of a debate. That should be coming soon, perhaps after Brees wins an MVP award this season.

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The Saints will always wonder what might have been last season. They played a fine game at Carolina in Week 16, only to have Cam Newton rip their hearts out in the final minute and a week later win the NFC South. Had the Saints held on, that would have jumbled the entire NFC playoff picture. They would have hosted a playoff game in the second round instead of going on the road in the first two rounds. They probably weren't beating Seattle in an NFC championship game anyway, but the deck would have shuffled a bit and who knows? 

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Drew Brees and Sean Payton (AP)

Drew Brees and Sean Payton (AP)

This year looks bright for New Orleans. Tight end Jimmy Graham has a new contract, so he should be happy. The defense doesn't have a ton of well-known stars, but that didn't stop Ryan from turning it into a top-five unit last year. The Saints need to figure out how to win on the road, but perhaps the confidence of winning a wild-card game at Philadelphia carries over.

And as long as the Brees-Payton combination is in place, the Saints should always be considered a contender in the NFC.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Saints were 8-0 at home, 3-5 on the road. That cost them the division. Their season ended with a playoff loss at Seattle.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The Saints had an interesting approach this offseason. They had to dump a lot of good players to clear up salary cap space. Center Brian De La Puente, safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, receiver Lance Moore, outside linebacker Will Smith were either cut or not retained, and running back Darren Sproles was traded to Philadelphia. The Saints then surprised everyone and used all their precious remaining cap room to land safety Jairus Byrd, a true impact player. But the Saints' depth took a big hit this offseason. The roster is worse as a result.  

Best offseason acquisition: The answer is Byrd, but let's focus on another new player who will have a huge role. The Saints traded Sproles, who was a tremendous and unique offensive weapon. They don't have another running back quite like him, but that's where receiver Brandin Cooks might come in. The Saints moved up in the draft to take the Oregon State star No. 20 overall, so you know Payton has a plan for him.

Cooks caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards last season. He's a bit undersized but blazing fast. He's not Sproles, but he's going to have a big part in the offense as a matchup nightmare. 

Achilles heel: Overall the weakness of the Saints will be their depth. It's a fairly top-heavy team that will need to stay injury free. But if there's one position that looks a bit shakier than the rest, it's cornerback.

Nobody is a bigger Champ Bailey defender than me I think he needs to be included in any conversation of greatest cornerback in NFL history but the Bailey that would lock down one side of the field doesn't work here anymore. He just turned 36, is coming off an injury-plagued season, and in the Broncos' playoff losses the past two seasons he wasn't very sharp. But who else is there?

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Champ Bailey (AP)

Champ Bailey (AP)

Keenan Lewis is solid but unspectacular. Corey White has never been a full-time starter. Second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste has impressed all offseason, but how many rookie corners come in and dominate? Patrick Robinson is coming off a rough patella injury. Unless Bailey works out or Jean-Baptiste is worth all the hype as a rookie, this is a potential soft spot.

Position in flux: The Saints' running back situation is interesting. There are three backs who could share the carries, unless one emerges to take a majority of them. The Saints seem intent on giving Mark Ingram yet another chance to be the top back, hoping that a 5.8-yard average in 63 carries over New Orleans' final nine games last year is a sign the light has finally turned on for the former Heisman winner.

If Ingram can't do it, Pierre Thomas has always been a solid back, and he's very good at catching the ball out of the backfield. Khiry Robinson also could carve out a bigger role in his second season. He was playing a lot at the end of last season, including 21 carries (and a 4.9-yard average on them) in the playoffs. 

Ready to break out: The Saints look like they got a steal with receiver Kenny Stills in the fifth round of last year's draft. Of course, catching passes from Brees will boost anyone's stock, but Stills had a great rookie season with 20 yards per reception and five touchdowns. It's hard to imagine Stills won't have a significant increase on the 32 catches he posted last season.

Stat fact: Brees has never won an MVP award. Strange, right? He deserved it in 2009, when he was better than Peyton Manning. But voters have a tough time saying no to Manning sometimes, so Manning won. Voters also like a cool story, and it's hard to imagine Brees will retire without winning at least one MVP. Between that and some Manning fatigue, Brees will win his first MVP this season.

Schedule degree of difficulty: You have to start with the road schedule, because that's the Saints' problem. New Orleans goes on the road against the three NFC South teams, and also travel to play the Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Steelers and Bears. Late-season games at Pittsburgh and Chicago won't be easy, but the rest looks manageable when you consider three of the eight road games are indoors.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Clearly the Saints can win a Super Bowl, but more than any other team it depends how many home games they earn in January. If the Saints get the top seed and that's realistic because the 49ers and Seahawks play in a brutal division then they'd be a runaway favorite to advance to the Super Bowl in Arizona and play in another dome for a championship.

If the defense comes close to repeating its top-four finish, it's hard to come up with a reason they can't win the whole thing.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: I have a tough time shaking the images of the 2012 defense, and I think there might be regression coming. I don't see Brees or the offense as a whole having a bad season, but the road woes for the Saints are real and it's hard to depend on going 8-0 at home every year. The NFC South is tough, and the Saints didn't win the division last year. And wild-card spots will be at a premium in the NFC. It's not crazy to think the Saints could miss the playoffs in a worst-case scenario.

The crystal ball says: The Saints have earned the right to start the season in the top five, considering how good the offense has been and the defensive mastery of Ryan last year. I've said I think the Buccaneers will win the division, and I'll stick by that. Although, obviously, nobody would be surprised if the Saints won it. I wouldn't bet against the Saints in any game at home, so if they somehow get a couple of Superdome games in the playoffs, look out. I just don't think they'll get there. Maybe I'm being stubborn, but I don't think the defense can pull off a full repeat of what it did in 2013.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Green Bay Packers
8. Indianapolis Colts
7. Chicago Bears
6. Philadelphia Eagles

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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