It is playoff time in the NFL. The Saints and Who Dat Nation have been waiting for this since last year. The team finished the year at 13-3 and will host a game for Wildcard Weekend. Many fans had hoped they could get a bye week but personally this is the best road towards another Super Bowl. The offense is getting hot at the right time. The defense is getting healthier and deeper on the depth chart. The scariest part of it all is the team still has yet to play its best game. Let us take a look at the Saints’ potential opponents by round:
Wildcard: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings finished as the sixth seed in the NFC. Offensively, they are pretty solid. Dalvin Cook is their biggest factor as their run game was their go to. He will come into this game banged up with a shoulder injury but expected to play. Kirk Cousins is, well, just who he is. Good enough to win games but does not show up when the big lights come on. Nonetheless, he is still capable of producing. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are their main receiver threats, but both had their ups and downs all season long. Kyle Rudolph will be the x-factor, especially in the red zone.
On the defensive side, the Vikings are still one of the best in the league. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen headline their defensive line. They will look to get pressure early and often. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are the playmakers at linebacker. Both are very smart and athletic and can be difference makers, although Kendricks is dealing with a quad injury. If he cannot go, it will definitely shake up their game plan. In the secondary, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes are the most notable. Rhodes has struggled more than usual but Smith is still playing at an elite level. It would not surprise me if they both work together to shut down Michael Thomas.
Overall, the Vikings are a solid team. The biggest factor to stopping them is shutting down the run game. Putting pressure on Cousins is also the next step. This is why I felt a first round bye was not necessary. The team is clicking at the right time and any break from that might change things. Another key stat is the Vikings were 4-4 this year on the road with only one of those wins coming against a team who finished .500 or better.
Divisional Round: Green Bay Packers
Oh no! Not the Packers in Lambeau in January! Whatever shall we do? We will keep calm and play our game. This is the first trip to the playoffs for the Packers since 2016. The Saints have been a different team on the road the last two years. They have a combined record of 14-2 and just seem to have another mindset at other venues.
As for Green Bay, we all know Aaron Rodgers is their guy. But this year it has been Aaron Jones who has put up the production. The Packers finally have a run game for the first time in a long time. Mainly because their passing attack is short on big targets. Davante Adams is their only consistent receiver. Jimmy Graham is a shell of his former self and has not put up the numbers he had with the Saints.
Defensively, they are led by the Smith “Brothers”, Preston and Zadarius. Both guys were critical free agent signings and impose their will on offensive lines. Jaire Alexander has made a name for himself in only his second season. Blake Martinez is their leading tackler and signal caller. They also have several key role players which has had their defense playing much better than the last couple years.
Here is where things are skeptical. Yes they finished 13-3, however, nine of their games were one possession wins. Let alone their three losses came at the hands of the Eagles, who barely got in the playoffs, the Chargers who had a losing season and the 49ers in which they got destroyed. Definitely did not feel they earned a first round bye but it is what it is. Saints will have to take care of business on their own.
Conference Championship: San Francisco 49ers/Seattle Seahawks/Philadelphia Eagles
Let us start with the Eagles. Carson Wentz is making his first playoff start even though his team has been in the playoffs the last two years. They are fortunate to be in because they won the division, which they barely won as well. They are depleted with injuries on both sides of the ball. Luck has definitely been on their side because they struggled to get where they are now. If they somehow manage to get this far, the football gods must be on their side.
The Seahawks have already faced the Saints once this year. Teddy Bridgewater came in and did his part in Seattle for a Week 3 victory. Now, they are the fifth seed after failing to win the final game of the season. They are also hurting at the worst time at their most coveted position: running back. Rashard Penny and Chris Carson both went down with season ending injuries down the stretch. They brought back Marshawn Lynch but it will not be the same. Russell Wilson is their main hope of getting the job done.
The 49ers got the best of the Saints in Week 14. Vice versa, the Saints put the work in on them and it has shown the last several weeks. They saw the Falcons win a last second play, the Rams give them a fight and almost pull off the upset and the Seahawks almost come back and win at the last second as well. Their offense and defense is one of the best in the league, there is no denying that. But more importantly, they have shown their hand that they can be beaten. The amount of injuries they have suffered has been brutal. At the same time, this is their first playoff appearance in five years.
The Saints had an opportunity to get the first seed but could not get the help they needed. They will have to do their own work and play their best football. Winning the division was not enough. They do not care how they get to the Super Bowl. Ultimately, the only team that can beat them is themselves. They have defied the odds this year when Drew Brees was gone for five games. They are clicking and getting healthier at the right time. It is time for them and the Who Dat Nation to go to work.