COMMENTARY | One down, seven to go. The New Orleans Saints' second-half gauntlet has begun.
It was well-known among Saints fans when the schedule was released that the biggest tests of the season wouldn't come until after the Saints played eight games. Yes, there were challenging divisional games and the game against the New England Patriots, but the stretch of games to end the season were seen as being the most brutal. And even though one never knows how an NFL season will play out when looking at the schedule in April, the teams the Saints face from Weeks 10 to 17 have mostly lived up the hype, and the Saints definitely have their work cut out for them.
For the first eight games, the Saints played three teams with a winning record through eight games. Two of those games are the Saints' lone losses. Arizona now has a winning record, but they did not look like the team they are now when the Saints dismantled them 31-7 in the Superdome. On the other side, the Dolphins were 3-0 before facing the Saints, but then went on a four-game losing streak. As you can see, records are a shaky way to determine how tough a schedule will be.
But point differential makes it a little clearer. The teams that the Saints faced in the first half of the season lost often and by a lot. The teams they will face from here on out did not lose by nearly as much. As of this week's games, the first eight teams the Saints played had a combined point differential of -206. Even if you don't read up on point differential and basic football philosophy, just know that a negative number is a very bad thing. There's an anomaly there, because the 5-4 New York Jets have a point differential of -62, but let's face it, the New York Jets are pretty much an anomaly unto themselves.
When looking at the last eight games, there are five teams with a winning record with a combined point differential of 254, more than 400 points of difference. The worst part of the stretch, by far, starts this week when the Saints play host to the San Francisco 49ers and then from there travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons and then Seattle to play the Seahawks. While the Falcons have certainly had a disastrous season, they're always a tough matchup at home, and I'm sure Matt Ryan and his buddies would love nothing more than to play spoiler to the Saints' playoff position by beating them. And the two NFC West teams have defenses that can definitely throw a wrench in Drew Brees' day. More than a wrench, really. The Niners defensive line will probably throw the whole toolshed. And inside Century Link Stadium with the 12th man breathing down his neck, it will be like an entire Ace Hardware of wrenches being thrown at Brees. Odd metaphors aside, these three games will not be easy.
And that's not even mentioning the Carolina Panthers. The Saints play two games against their division rival, who are only one game behind them in the standings. It's incredibly important to win one if not both of those matchups if the Saints want to win the division. The Panthers look scary right now, as they were able to dominate the Niners offense in an impressive 10-9 victory. The only breaks the Saints really get are the Bucs and the Rams, and since one is a divisional game and one is on the road, even those are not guaranteed victories. The Saints lost their last game in St. Louis, and needed a last second field goal to claim victory over the hapless Bucs. In the gauntlet, nothing can be taken for granted.
Starting off 6-2 was very impressive. It was better than most national pundits predicted. And we shouldn't forget that, though the Saints have an incredibly tough schedule remaining, they are a tough team. I made a big deal about point differential earlier; the Saints have a point differential of 102, good for 5th in the league and almost half of their combined tough opponents. In the first game of the gauntlet, Drew Brees and the Saints looked nearly flawless in their absolute decimation of the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were supposedly one of the tough teams too, and the Saints beat them soundly in every phase of the game. The Saints do have three more games at home, which would give them 10 wins if everything goes the way it has all year long. This wasn't meant to be a defeatist piece; in fact, if the Saints perform well, or even adequately, in this stretch, it makes me a lot more confident in their chances in the playoffs.
But the fact remains that the first eight games were a trip through Gumdrop Mountain compared to what they have to face the rest of the way. And if the Saints want to be in New York in early February - and not need tickets to the game - they're going to have to prove their mettle against some of the fiercest competition they've seen yet.
Nathan Raby is from New Orleans and is a lifelong supporter of the Saints and everything New Orleans. He is the co-founder and writer of http://thefootbawlblog.com.
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