NFC South: Lombardi Trophy

There’s a great story out of Charlotte on Wednesday morning. Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer.

That act alone scores him points in my eyes. These are tough times for all newspapers and I’m happy to see anyone pay good money to a newspaper where I used to work and still have many friends.

But this gesture goes way beyond helping the economy. More importantly, Kalil’s ad sends a very strong message to fans. You can view the whole ad here.

The short version is this: Kalil’s ad says the Panthers will win the Super Bowl this season. Then, he goes on and explains why and Kalil has some pretty impressive writing skills, which he can fall back on if he ever gets tired of playing the offensive line. But it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen anytime soon because Kalil has other goals in mind.

“A moment is upon us, where dreams become beliefs and yearning becomes conviction,’’ Kalil wrote. “How do I know? Because I’ve seen it.’’

Kalil then briefly runs through the franchise’s history and says this is the year the Panthers do something they’ve never done before. He sees only one way for this season to end.

“One-hundred percent sterling silver victory,’’ Kalil wrote. “The Lombardi Trophy. And it reads: CAROLINA PANTHERS – SUPER BOWL XLVII CHAMPIONS.’’

I like how Kalil thinks. The Panthers certainly appear to be a team on the rise. Their fans, who’ve had a few rough years recently, have very high hopes for this season.

Kalil has grown into one of the leaders of this team. I don’t view his act as a Joe Namath “guarantee." I view it as a very positive way to fire up fans and teammates as the Panthers get ready to head to training camp.


Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Saints in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): The ending of this dream is simple. It ends exactly where it starts -- in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. That’s the site of this season’s Super Bowl and there’s no sweeter vision in the eyes of Saints fans than watching their team win the NFL’s biggest spectacle at home. If revenge is sweet, this would be 1,000 times sweeter.

New Orleans fans and players are mad about how severely the NFL punished the Saints for their bounty program. They would love it if Roger Goodell handed the Saints the Lombardi trophy in their own building.

It actually could happen. Think about it: Other than suspended coach Sean Payton, the Saints really haven’t lost that much from a team that went 13-3 last season. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma also is suspended for the entire season, but Vilma’s age (30) started to show last season. The Saints are better off with Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker. The Saints also will have to get through the first four games without suspended defensive end Will Smith.

But other than that, this team remains loaded with talent. Drew Brees and the offense always will put up a bunch of points. If new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can make the defense better, the Saints easily are a playoff team. They’ll be motivated by an us-against-the-world mentality, so anything is at least possible.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): It’s easy to say Payton had a great system in place and a veteran team, so the assistants can just run the show and it will be business as usual. I tend to agree with that theory. But what if the importance of a head coach is even greater than we realized? And what if the emotional weight of the most turbulent offseason in NFL history catches up to the Saints?

That’s when all bets are off and when things could start falling apart. Since winning the Super Bowl in the 2009 season, the defense hasn’t been very good. The greatness of the offense has been enough to carry the Saints to the playoffs the past two seasons, but it hasn’t been great enough to carry them deep into the postseason. There’s no doubting Spagnuolo has a good defensive mind, but he might not have all the personnel he needs to run his scheme successfully.

Well, the easy thing to say is that the offense will carry this team no matter what. But even if Payton wasn’t suspended, it’s hard to imagine the offense being even more productive than last season. Take Brees and the offense back down to what they were in 2007 and ’08, give New Orleans a defense that’s no better than last season's, and the Saints could tumble to a middle-of-the-pack team.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

New territory. It’s been pretty obvious coach Sean Payton has taken the Saints to a new level since arriving in 2006. That Lombardi Trophy from the 2009 season is tangible proof. But here’s another sign that success is here to stay. If the Saints win Sunday at Tennessee, they’ll have three consecutive 10-win seasons. That’s never happened in franchise history. The Saints previously had back-to-back winning seasons in 1987 and ’88 and 1991 and ’92.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMark Ingram and the Saints have shown the kind of rushing attack that could be a factor in cold weather.
Dome team? Sunday will be the last time the Saints play outdoors this season. They’re 6-0 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but only 2-2 in away games in outdoor stadiums. Keep that stat in mind, because I’ve got a feeling it could be a talking point if the Saints have to go to San Francisco or Green Bay in the postseason. One thing to keep in mind as we start looking ahead: As much as people like to talk about New Orleans' passing game, I think the Saints also have the ingredients for the kind of running game that could come in handy in a bad-weather game.

Defense has been offensive. The Bucs go against a rookie quarterback for the second straight week. Cam Newton’s inexperience didn’t exactly help the Tampa Bay defense last week as the Panthers scored 38 points. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert hasn’t put up Newton-like numbers, so this might be a chance for Tampa Bay’s defense to stop a very bad slide. The Bucs have given up at least 350 yards of offense in each of their past nine games. They’re allowing 393.8 yards per game, which ranks No. 30 in the league. The Bucs also have a chance to break their franchise record for average yards allowed per game over the course of the season. That was set by the 1986 squad, which allowed 395.8 yards per game.

Bouncing back. In one way, the Falcons' loss to Houston might be a good thing. Atlanta is 4-0 following a loss this season. In fact, the Falcons haven’t had back-to-back losses since Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2009 season.

Bringing the heat. If you want a preview of what Atlanta’s defense might do against the Panthers, just find film of the Week 6 game these two played in Atlanta. Although Newton has done a nice job handling the blitz overall, he struggled with it against the Falcons. In the previous meeting, Newton completed only 37.5 percent of his passes and was intercepted three times when Atlanta sent five or more pass-rushers.

Saints to host 'Gleason Gras'

November, 10, 2011
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The New Orleans Saints are planning a big event to raise awareness for Amyothrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and the Gleason Family Trust.

Former New Orleans player Steve Gleason has been diagnosed with ALS. The Saints will host "Gleason Gras'' at Champions Square from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., CT, on Nov. 27.

The event will feature music by Better Than Ezra, former Saints player Kyle Turley and others. There also will be an autograph tent featuring several Saints and fans will be allowed to see the Lombardi Trophy from the Saints’ Super Bowl victory.

Tickets go on sale Friday at 6 p.m. and can be purchased online at www.ticketmaster.com or the New Orleans Arena box office. Tickets are $20 each with a $3 service charge per order.

The event will be held the day before the Saints host the New York Giants in a “Monday Night Football’’ game.

“This is a player and a family that, aside from our prayers, needs our help,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “His battle with this disease and his family’s battle with this disease are difficult enough, but the proceeds will go to a trust for Steve Gleason and his family. The one thing about this city is we’ve always found a way to rally around difficult times or certainly a person in need. I know this is a great cause. It’s easy for me to sit here and talk about our willingness to help and I think our fans and the people who have met Steve Gleason or at least know him even a little will find an opportunity to support this.’’

Jon Gruden on returning to Ray Jay

September, 29, 2011
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There’s a very interesting off-field story to go along with the game between the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.

Former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden will be returning to Raymond James Stadium for an NFL game for the first time since he was dismissed after the 2009 season. This time, Gruden will be there as an analyst for “Monday Night Football."

In this Front Row item by Bill Hofheimer, Gruden discusses his return and several other topics. He even reflected on a 2003 Monday night game in which the Bucs led 35-15 with four minutes left, but somehow ended up losing in overtime.

“We got off to a really good start and had a commanding lead,’’ Gruden said. “Then I got shot by 'The Sheriff.' One of our corners -- Brian Kelly -- tore his pec muscle and we put a backup corner in there and [Colts quarterback] Peyton Manning found him a couple of times. They returned a kickoff after one of our touchdowns down to the eight- or nine-yard line. Next thing I knew it was seven points for the Colts. That game was one of Peyton’s finest hours. When you lose a substantial lead like that with the kind of defense we had, that was tough. The house was packed that night, and I think they all went home mad at me.

But Gruden also talked a lot about happier times. When asked what was his best win in Raymond James Stadium, he pointed to a win over a division rival.

“In 2005, we beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-24 in overtime,’’ Gruden said. “It was Cadillac Williams’ rookie year. We came from behind to get the win and it helped us win the division. We blocked a kick late in the game — Dwayne White blocked a field goal. Chris Simms was our quarterback. That was a great day at Raymond James.’’

Of course, Gruden’s best memory of the stadium involved a game that was played in San Diego in his first season with the Bucs.

“My favorite memory was right after we returned home from the Super Bowl in San Diego,’’ Gruden said. “We went to the stadium and met our fans. It was packed. That was phenomenal. The place was just going crazy. There was a traffic jam all up and down Dale Mabry Highway. We got to the stadium with the Lombardi Trophy and there were people everywhere. To share that moment with the fans was awesome.’’
I’ve hinted several times that we’d be having some sort of mega-chat at some point this week. Well, I’ve got clearance now to give you that information.

ESPN.com will be holding an NFL kickoff chat starting at 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday. I’ll be batting leadoff because I’m going to have to make my way up to Wisconsin later in the day. I’ll start chatting at 10, maybe even a few minutes before. I’ll take questions for 30 minutes and then hand it off to NFC East colleague Dan Graziano. Throughout the day, you’ll be able to chat with a whole bunch of ESPN.com writers.

Also, NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert and I will be chatting live to each other during Thursday night’s game between the Saints and Packers. Well, Seifert and I will be chatting with you. We’re not talking to each other these days because that Lombardi Trophy has kind of gone to Kevin’s head. I’m just kidding. Seifert’s a great friend.

And a final reminder that there will be no NFC South chat this Friday. Part of that is because we’ll be chatting so much at other times and part of that’s because I’ll be traveling Friday from Green Bay to Chicago to get ready for Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Bears.

Around the NFC South

July, 26, 2011
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On what's sure to be a busy day, let's cover a lot of ground by taking a look at headlines from all around the NFC South.

Carolina free-agent running back DeAngelo Williams said he will meet with general manager Marty Hurney to discuss his future. Williams also said he wants to retire as a member of the Panthers.

John Romano points out that we’re finally going to find out what the Bucs really think of linebacker Barrett Ruud. He’s been looking for a new contract for a couple of years, but hasn’t gotten one. With free agency starting, the Bucs either have to pay him or let him walk.

Business leaders in Spartanburg, S.C., are relieved the lockout is over and Panthers training camp will start on time. Camp reportedly brings in almost $800,000 a year in direct spending.

Jeff Duncan writes that the Saints will have to sign 43 players, probably including a bunch of their own free agents, to get to the 90-player limit.

Rookie quarterback Cam Newton is expected to report to Carolina’s facility on Tuesday, even though he’s yet to sign a contract. The Panthers are expected to begin negotiating with his agents today.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson sent out a letter to fans, thanking them for their patience during the lockout. He also said his mission is to bring a Lombardi trophy to the Carolinas and he plans to pursue that aggressively.

The Falcons are expected to report Thursday and hit the practice field for the first time Friday.

The Panthers will report Friday and start practicing Saturday.
Marshawn Lynch and Tracy PorterMike Nelson/US PresswireMarshawn Lynch pushed Tracy Porter and the Saints' defense around on his 67-yard score.
SEATTLE -- The memories of their Super Bowl season will last forever. The magic did not.

The feel-good story of last season -- or maybe the past decade or two -- is over. It ended unexpectedly and more than a little embarrassingly for the New Orleans Saints. The defending Super Bowl champions came into Qwest Field on Saturday to play the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

It ended with the Seattle Seahawks, a team that stumbled to the NFC West championship, defeating the Saints 41-36. Just like that, the magic and miracles that carried the Saints all the way to Miami and last year’s Super Bowl are over.

“After you experience raising that trophy, you don’t want to see anyone else lift it,’’ New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There wasn’t a person in this locker room that didn’t think we would be lifting that trophy again.’’

That’s not going to happen. Some other team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February and it will come in a season in which the Saints generally looked like they were avoiding “the curse’’ that has dethroned so many recent Super Bowl champions.

They went 11-5 in the regular season, again riding the arm of Drew Brees and using a defense that looked better overall than it did a year ago. Then, against a team the Saints handled easily in the regular season, it all fell apart.

Instead of looking like the Saints of the regular season or the champion Saints of the 2009 season, the Saints looked a lot more like the New Orleans teams of 2007 and 2008. Those teams could move the ball, but didn’t play much defense. Those teams were mediocre, sort of like the Seahawks.

“We’ll have a chance to look at the film,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked to explain why his team suddenly collapsed.

Payton’s right. There will be no Super Bowl parades or even any more games this season. The Saints will have months to reflect on what happened.

There will be painful weeks to watch the film of Matt Hasselbeck throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a lot of time to see safety Darren Sharper looking like he waited too long to retire. Time to watch strong safety Roman Harper looking even worse than Sharper and time to watch rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson making a season’s worth of rookie mistakes.

That’s not going to look good on the résumé of Gregg Williams. He’s the defensive coordinator and the man many credit for putting the Saints over the top last season. He has been mentioned as a possible head-coaching candidate in other places in recent weeks. He now will have time to interview. If Williams doesn’t get another job, he and Payton can watch the horror movie together.

[+] EnlargeSaints' Drew Brees
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA season after winning their first Super Bowl, Drew Brees and the Saints were ousted in the wild-card round.
“Our eyes were not very good in coverage,’’ Sharper said.

Throw in their legs and their minds too, and don’t limit the blame to the secondary. The front four and the linebackers also got destroyed. Hasselbeck, who couldn’t even play a week ago because of a hip injury, completed 22 of 35 passes and finished with a 113.0 passer rating. Marshawn Lynch ran over the New Orleans defense for 131 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

“I think we might have taken for granted the success they had throwing against us earlier in the season,’’ Sharper said.

That’s a reference to the Nov. 21 regular-season game in the Superdome. Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards in that game, but the Saints won 34-19. So what changed between the regular-season game and now? And what happened between last year’s Super Bowl and now?

A team that took pride in saying the only real losses from the Super Bowl were linebacker Scott Fujita and backup running back Mike Bell somehow lost a lot more. Yes, injuries were a factor. The Saints were forced to play Sharper because starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins was injured. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory didn’t play because of injuries and fellow running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones got so banged up in the second half that the Saints had to play DeShawn Wynn, who was signed last week.

But the problems started long before Bush and Jones got hurt. The Saints, who had to fly across the country and had only six days between games, started off playing like champions. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and Seattle was looking every bit the part of a 7-9 team. Then everything changed.

“It’s only appropriate to start off with congratulating [coach] Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks for a big win,'' Payton said. “They played a real good game.’’

Yes, give the Seahawks credit, but the Saints gave them a whole lot of help. Although Brees threw for 404 yards on 60 attempts, any attempt at offensive balance was abandoned in the second and third quarters when the Seahawks outscored the Saints 27-10.

Lynch and the Seattle receivers ran all over Williams’ defense. Things got so bad that Payton had to call for a desperation onside kick near the end of the game instead of using it as a surprise as he did in the Super Bowl win.

The Saints, who danced their way out of Miami after the Super Bowl and posed for pictures on the Atlanta Falcons’ logo in the Georgia Dome a few weeks ago, lost their swagger in Seattle.

The locker room was quiet.

“We knew we had a team we thought could repeat,’’ Sharper said.

“This stings a lot,’’ cornerback Jabari Greer said.

The silence and the sting will last the long flight back home and probably spill over into the coming weeks and months. The Saints lost more than just a playoff game.

They lost their chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions and they did it against a team that had a losing record in the regular season. Instead, they’re left to think about preventing a repeat of what happened in Seattle.

“If we’re ever in this position down the road, we have to remember this experience so it doesn’t happen again,’’ Shanle said.

Saints face rough road to repeat

January, 2, 2011
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Reggie BushAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyReggie Bush and the Saints are limping into the postseason after an ugly loss to Tampa Bay.
NEW ORLEANS –- If you go only by conventional wisdom, the New Orleans Saints aren’t in great shape as they head into the playoffs.

After Sunday’s 23-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints seem to have lost momentum. They seem burdened by injuries. But these Saints sometimes defy the laws of conventional wisdom. That’s how they won a Super Bowl championship last season. Despite Sunday’s stumble, the Saints, 11-5, believe they have a chance to repeat.

“Our expectations are exactly the same as when we came into the season,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “There’s no reason we can’t do it again.’’

That makes some sense when you think back to a year ago. After winning their first 13 games, the Saints lost the final three games of the regular season. There were concerns that they wouldn’t last long in the playoffs. Instead, they went through the postseason with relative ease.

But there is one big difference. This year, the Saints are in as a wild-card team. They’re the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs and they’ll have to go on the road to face the NFC West champion next week. More than likely, they won’t see the friendly surroundings of the Superdome until the start of next season.

“We’ve traveled a road like this before and we know what’s ahead of us,’’ said Brees, who also led the Saints to an NFC Championship Game before losing on the road at the end of the 2006 season.

The Saints have a Lombardi Trophy to show they know how to win championships. But they’re going to have to do it in difficult fashion this time. Even if the Saints can get by the NFC West champion, they might have to go on the road to play the NFC South champion and top-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.

But that’s where the calm that was evident in the New Orleans locker room after the loss to the Bucs (10-6) could come in handy. The Saints already went into the Georgia Dome last week and defeated the Falcons. Yeah, they lost to the Buccaneers and they lost at home, but the Saints were shrugging this one off almost immediately.

“Before the Atlanta game, I looked around the locker room and I could see the playoff intensity in everybody’s eyes,’’ linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There is a quiet calmness to this team that is scary. Give us the ball. Give us 100 yards. We’ll play anybody anywhere.’’

That might be the exact sort of confident attitude that a team needs heading into the playoffs, and the fact that the Saints have postseason experience sure doesn’t hurt. But are the Saints physically ready for the challenges that are going to come with the playoffs?

They played Tampa Bay with tight end Jeremy Shockey (groin), running back Pierre Thomas (ankle) and receiver Marques Colston (knee) on the sidelines. Once they got into the game with the Buccaneers, the injuries kept coming. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee), running back Chris Ivory (foot) and tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) all left the game and didn’t return.

Coach Sean Payton said he didn’t know the severity of any of the new injuries immediately after the game. He also said if any of the players with previous injuries had been ready to go Sunday, they would have played.

The Saints went into the day with an outside shot to overtake Atlanta for the division crown and the No. 1 seed. But that would have required Atlanta losing to a dismal Carolina team and the Saints winning. The Saints and Buccaneers were playing a pretty even game as the Falcons were running away with an easy win against the Panthers. The Saints kept an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Bill HaberSaints coach Sean Payton took some key players out of the game in the fourth quarter against the Bucs.
Payton kept his starters playing into the fourth quarter. He raised the white flag when he put Chase Daniel in for Brees with nine minutes and 15 seconds remaining and the Buccaneers leading 20-13.

“There was a point where -- and we had discussed this as a staff -- if in the second half, that other game was out of whack, then we were going to back off and not get anybody injured,’’ Payton said. “Our focus completely all week was to get our 12th win, just like we would in any game.’’

But once Payton pulled his starters, you could tell a switch had been flipped. Still trailing by only a touchdown, Payton punted on a fourth down at Tampa Bay’s 39-yard line. That’s something it’s hard, maybe impossible, to imagine Payton doing in a game that really mattered.

Maybe yanking the starters minimized further chances of injury damage. But even when the Saints were playing all out, they weren’t playing particularly well. Brees threw an interception and was sacked three times. The Saints lost two fumbles.

Other than the fact that Reggie Bush, who has been working his way back slowly from a broken leg, ran for 70 yards on nine carries, there weren’t many bright spots on offense. The defense allowed Josh Freeman to complete 21 of 26 passes for 255 yards with two touchdowns and a 133.2 passer rating.

“I thought we did a lot of things that prevent you from winning games, some things we’ll have to clean up if we’re to have any type of success here in this second season,’’ Payton said.

There might be a lot to clean up in a very short time. But think back to last season when the final three regular-season games left the Saints seeming like a mess. They cleaned things up then, so it’s hard to write them off just because they’re on a one-game losing streak, they have some injuries and they have to go on the road.

“I can’t say it’s easier than having the bye and having teams come into our building,’’ Shanle said. “But the thing I really like about this team is the way we respond to challenges. The level of play elevates when this team is challenged.’’

The playoffs are here and the Saints are being challenged.

Saints could face tough road to repeat

December, 19, 2010
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Drew BreesAP Photo/Rob CarrDrew Brees and the Saints will likely have chilly road stadiums in their postseason future next month.
BALTIMORE -- In a postgame locker room where there easily could have been talk of frustration, doom or even meetings to plan the return of the Lombardi Trophy, there simply wasn’t.

“If we are a wild-card, then obviously our trip to the Super Bowl is on the road,’’ New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after a 30-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. “If that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll have to do.’’

Nobody summed up the situation the Saints (10-4) face any better than Brees. Nobody even took a different tack than Brees. From head coach Sean Payton on down, the Saints were taking the loss for precisely what it was.

“It’s a disappointing loss, a tough loss,’’ Payton said. “You credit Baltimore. It was a hard-fought game. I thought both teams played hard and, in the end, they made more plays than we did.’’

Ordinarily, the above quote would not have been transcribed off my tape recorder and it certainly wouldn't have been used. It’s the kind of meaningless stuff coaches spew every week. But, in this case, it is entirely accurate.

On a chilly day at M&T Stadium, two good teams played a good game and the Ravens (10-4) came out with a narrow win. There’s no real shame in any of that, but let’s keep the part about chilly days in distant stadiums and playing against very good teams in mind.

Last season’s dream of playoff games in the comfy Superdome are fading fast.

“I think we’re a very good road team,’’ Brees said. “We just ran into a very good opponent.’’

Well, if the Saints really are going to repeat as champions, losing close games on the road isn’t going to be good enough. There is the Dec. 27 road game at Atlanta, the team that has the lead in the NFC South. After that, there’s a regular-season-ending home game with Tampa Bay, but that might be the last time the Saints see the Superdome until next season.

Heck, unless they’re lucky enough to draw the NFC West champion in a playoff game, they probably have faced their last easy opponent until next season. Sunday’s temperature at kickoff was 34 degrees. There was no snow and the sun even came out a few times, but the Saints potentially could face road trips in the playoffs where the setting could be far worse than Baltimore.

They could end up in places like Philadelphia, New York or Chicago in January.

“The fact is, we still had a chance to win at the end,’’ Brees said. “That’s all you can ask for.’’

That’s all true. The Saints were in it all the way until Brees had a pass intercepted with one minute, 47 seconds left.

If nothing else, though, Sunday showed that things aren’t going to get any easier for the Saints. In fact, in a lot of ways, it showed some pretty major flaws that can be exploited.

Let’s start with the run defense, because the Ravens started and finished with their run offense. Baltimore’s Ray Rice carried 31 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. Factor in a few carries by Willis McGahee, highlighted by a 28-yard run, and quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens gained 208 yards on the ground.

“Our game plan was to stop [Rice],’’ New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

Chalk up that game plan -- or at least the execution of that game plan -- as pretty much a total failure.

“We didn’t stop the run at all,’’ veteran safety Darren Sharper said. “It just comes down to tackling the guy with the football. We know we can play with this team or any team. It was just more about the fundamentals, more about not tackling.’’

Well, guess what? The Saints probably are going to face a few more good running backs before all is said and done. There’s Atlanta’s Michael Turner next week (and maybe later in the playoffs) and Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount in two weeks. And if you look at the other running backs the Saints potentially could face in the playoffs, you’ll see some pretty good ones. If the Saints keep going the way they are, you could even end up seeing some running backs play a lot better than they really are.

“Our defense is about creating turnovers,’’ Jenkins said. “When they put the ball on the ground for 150 yards, that makes it tough to get turnovers.’’

If you really want to knock this point home, you might want to factor in what Rice did as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown on a day when Flacco was completing only 10 of his 20 passes for 172 yards.

Were the Saints too focused on stripping the ball from Rice and forgot about tackling him?

“We were doing the same thing we’ve been doing,’’ Payton said. “Obviously, they rushed the ball pretty well, so we’ll look to clean some of that up.’’

It might be a good idea to clean up all of that. It clearly isn’t panic time for the defending champions. But it’s approaching. The Saints must figure out how to stop the run and win games played in distant, cold-weather stadiums.

“Everything is ahead of us,’’ Sharper said. “If we win our next two games, we are in a good position. We need to come back from today. This was a tough loss to a tough team.’’

Maybe that’s all this was -- or maybe it was a sign of what’s starting to look like a tough road for the Saints.

Josh Freeman taking hold of Buccaneers

December, 15, 2010
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It seems like just about every week we talk about how much Josh Freeman grew up on Sunday. Well, I think we saw another step in the process of becoming a true franchise quarterback and it happened on a Wednesday.

In light of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and coach Raheem Morris suddenly taking a lot of heat after linebacker Geno Hayes became the latest player to get into off-field trouble, Freeman stepped up twice -- once very publicly and once very privately -- and did exactly what a franchise quarterback should do.

Freeman took the heat off Morris and pointed the blame firmly where it belongs. That part happened in a public venue, as Freeman met with the media.

“I don’t think it says anything about the type of coach Raheem is,’’ Freeman said. “I think some people could look at it that way. But honestly, the circumstances where the stuff occurred, it is all on the player. I mean, his job is to coach us and put us in position to win football games. He’s done just that. When we get done with football, you can’t expect Raheem to go to everybody’s house at a certain hour. It is the NFL. We have to take a higher level of responsibility on ourselves from college. As team captains and team leaders, we’ve been stressing that a lot lately.’’

The last part of that quote, about captains and team leaders, leads us to the private area. There was a players-only meeting Wednesday, according to a team source, and Freeman and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber were the ones running the show. Freeman’s election as a team captain at the start of the season was a sign that the second-year player already had the respect of his teammates. But the fact that he was the one telling 52 other guys to be responsible on Wednesday shows that Freeman’s role as a captain isn’t just some meaningless title.

Quarterbacks are the faces of franchises and Freeman’s actions reminded me of a couple of things I’ve seen through the years in the NFC South, even in times before there was the existing NFC South.

Let’s start with Steve Beuerlein and the Carolina Panthers in 1999. In one of the worst off-field incidents in NFL history, wide receiver Rae Carruth eventually was charged and convicted with arranging the murder of his pregnant girlfriend. Carruth obviously disappeared immediately, but the spotlight stayed on the Panthers.

Camera crews from national news networks showed up on a regular basis and, understandably, a lot of players hid because Carruth’s problem wasn’t really their territory. Even coach George Seifert kept a very low profile.

That left Beuerlein to stand and face the music day after day. Beuerlein might not have been the greatest quarterback ever, but he understood his role. He was the leader of the team. No matter how tired he might have been about answering questions about a teammate he barely knew, Beuerlein handled every day with grace. He said all the right things about how the Panthers were just praying for everyone involved and it took the heat off his coaches and teammates. Beuerlein and the Panthers actually had a pretty decent season on the field and there was no doubt about who was running the team.

Now, let’s move on to a current NFC South quarterback, who might be the best example of what Freeman seems to be headed for. That’s New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. If you have ever been around the Saints, you almost instantly realize they operate out of Brees’ locker room.

Nobody crosses Brees and that’s not just because he’s one of the best on-field quarterbacks in the league. Brees totally gets what it takes to be a champion (he’s got the Lombardi Trophy to prove it) and he constantly spreads that message to his teammates. Publicly, he says all the right things. Privately, he does it even more firmly.

If a guy isn’t working as hard as he should be or is heading down a bad road off the field, Brees often gets in that guy’s ear before the coaches and front office have to. You want an example of how sternly Brees runs the locker room?

Take the case of Jeremy Shockey. In his days with the New York Giants, Shockey pushed around quarterback Eli Manning and usually not in a good way. That led to dysfunction and eventually got Shockey traded.

In New Orleans, Shockey hasn’t been nearly as flamboyant and it has been that way right from the start. That’s because Shockey knew coming in that you do things Brees’ way. He has, and it’s part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season.

It’s early in the process, but Freeman is showing a lot of the same traits as Brees. He’s playing well and leading his team to victories on the field. During the offseason, you heard stories about how no player was spending more time around One Buccaneer Place than Freeman. He’s also showing a growing knack for saying all the right things.

Lots of guys come into the league looking the part of a franchise quarterback, but never really act the part. Freeman is doing both. Contrary to popular belief, the Bucs aren't some team running amok. Yes, they have some issues. But they have the one guy in the locker room who, with a few words, can straighten out a lot of things by standing up and taking control.

Strength of the (NFC) South

December, 15, 2010
12/15/10
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Every week, every team's media-relations staff puts out a lengthy release about the upcoming game. In the days when the world still functioned in print, teams handed these out as bound books. Some still do and some just send them out electronically. There always is interesting stuff in every release.

But I have a favorite section and I'm very partial in this regard. You'll understand in a second. The section is a weekly feature in Tampa Bay's release and the title for an item that takes up an entire page is "Strength of the South."

It often seems like we all have an inferiority complex because there's a perception (and, sometimes, a reality) that the NFC South does not get the national attention it deserves. So, let's all boost the old self esteem a little bit today.

Let's take a read through an excerpt of what the Bucs included on Page 18 of this week's release:
One could argue that the toughest division in the NFL is the NFC South. Since realignment in 2002, the NFC South is one of two divisions in the NFC and is one of only three divisions in the NFL to have every team earn a division championship. The NFC West and the AFC West are the only other divisions to have all four teams earn a division championship since realign­ment. The NFC South has also been represented a league-best six times in a Conference Championship Game, one better than the NFC East, and tied for a league best three times in the Super Bowl along with the AFC East. They have also sent the most differ­ent teams to the Super Bowl of any division, send­ing three different teams (Tampa Bay, Carolina, New Orleans) and have the most different teams to win a Super Bowl, two (Tampa Bay, New Orleans), since 2002. The NFC South has been led by the Bucca­neers, who have won three division crowns in eight years.

I think I'm going to go out and get that item -- heck the entire page -- printed out tomorrow and blow up to poster size. Maybe even jazz them up a bit with pictures of the Lombardi Trophy in the background. Then, I'm going to send copies to my friends Matt Mosley and Mike Sando.

Anybody that repeatedly refers to the division they cover as "The Beast'' deserves as much junk mail as they can possibly get. And Sando? Well, I just want to help a friend out. I'm thinking that while I'm covering three playoff teams in January, he'll need something to read to pass the time.

State of despair: Saints

October, 29, 2010
10/29/10
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A quick look at a team that has not met expectations and is struggling.

What’s gone wrong: The old cliché about a “Super Bowl hangover’’ probably explains some of what’s happened to the Saints (4-3). It’s not that they spent too much time celebrating their win. It’s just that following up a dream season like last year – and doing it in the same spectacular fashion – is almost impossible.

The Saints were playing a month longer than most teams last season and that disrupted the rhythm of the offseason. They’ve also had a series of injuries at key positions, namely cornerback (Randall Gay, Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer each have missed time) and running back (Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas have missed significant time).

The Saints are a walking target for every opponent who wants to make their season by knocking off the champions. They returned pretty much the whole Super Bowl roster, but the Saints haven’t looked much like last year’s team.

How to fix them: Getting healthy would be a great way to start. Bush appears to be close to returning, and the bye week is coming up Nov. 14. If the Saints can stay above water in the short term, the second half of their schedule doesn’t look all that difficult.

Quarterback Drew Brees has struggled and the defense hasn’t been as opportunistic as it was a year ago. But those might not be permanent conditions. Brees and the defense each have the talent to start clicking at any moment, and that could make the Saints dangerous again.

Panic meter: About three degrees shy of the boiling point. Sunday night’s game with the Steelers should tell us everything about the Saints. If they win, they’re right in the thick of things. If they lose, they’ll be trying to play catch up in the second half of the season.

Coach on the hot seat? Sean Payton might not be looking quite like the “genius’’ he was a year ago. But this guy still has silver polish from the Lombardi Trophy on his fingers. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Southern supremacy on line Sunday

September, 24, 2010
9/24/10
11:27
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Sean Payton and Mike SmithUS Presswire, Icon SMICoaches Sean Payton and Mike Smith lead their teams into an NFC South showdown Sunday, and whichever team is victorious will have the early lead for the division title.
The man with perhaps the best vision in the NFL was asked the other day for his view of the Atlanta Falcons.

Drew Brees surveyed the field as he was asked if the Falcons appear to be “on the cusp’’ like the Saints were last year. He spotted something he liked in the question and he threw deep down the middle.

“Yes, because you have the offensive and defensive system that guys have been running for a while, so there’s a comfort level, and I know their personnel’s been very consistent,’’ the New Orleans Saints' quarterback said. “The young players they’ve added are talented guys, so I think they’re as good as they are from a personnel standpoint, defensively at least, as I’ve seen them.”

Welcome to the NFC South, where, at least on the surface, things are a little more laid back. Rivalries aren’t played out in the media and coaches and players go out of their way to kill each other with kindness.

“This is a tough division,’’ Brees said. “Anytime you play a divisional opponent there’s a lot of familiarity there and you just know that there are always close games. They’re always fighting . You both know each other’s personnel pretty well. I think a lot of it is about who can out-execute the other. It’s not about fooling them with trick plays or anything else. It’s just about lining up and being able to play better. They have a good football team and obviously they’ll be ready to play us. It’s a big challenge.”

Probably even bigger than the Saints and Falcons are willing to admit publicly. Let’s face it, the best rivalry in the NFC South these days is Atlanta and New Orleans. They were the top teams in the division last year and whatever happens Sunday when they play in the Louisiana Superdome will go a long way in deciding who wins the division.

Yes, Tampa Bay is 2-0, but let’s see that bandwagon roll a little bit more before including the Buccaneers in discussions about the division title. From the time predictions started rolling out this summer, the NFC South has been a two-team race.

In fact, the Falcons were a trendy pick to win the division, maybe even go to the Super Bowl. That may have ruffled some feathers in New Orleans, where fans can still feel the Lombardi Trophy. Even in the New Orleans locker room, there have been a few comments about how the Falcons were getting credit before they’d done anything.

Saints head coach Sean Payton stayed clear of any hint of that this week when asked if he cared that so many people had picked Atlanta to win the division.

“What do you think?” Payton said.

One reporter followed that up by saying he thought Payton did care and that he might use it as a motivational tactic.

“Honestly, I think that all of that is unimportant to all of us, myself included,’’ Payton said. "I really wouldn’t know how many people have picked them to win or us to win; it’s really unimportant. What’s important is what happens. To be honest with you, it’s not something that we’ve looked at and pointed at."

It’s only Week 3 of the NFL season, but this is shaping up as a huge game for both teams. The Saints (2-0) arre coming off a short week and a difficult Monday night win against San Francisco after opening the season with an emotional close victory over Minnesota.

Drew Brees
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDrew Brees said the Falcons are "as talented on defense as I've ever seen them."
You could look at New Orleans and say the Saints haven’t played particularly well in either game and that they’re banged up, especially at running back where Reggie Bush is out for about six weeks after suffering a broken right fibula against San Francisco. You could look at New Orleans and say the Saints are ripe for their first defeat since Week 17 last season.

But Atlanta head coach Mike Smith isn’t about to do that. He sees a division rival that the Falcons played tough twice last season but lost both times. And he sees Brees.

“He is definitely going to be the best quarterback that we’ve faced this season," Smith said."He may very well be the best quarterback we face all season -- two times. I think the biggest challenge is the surrounding cast that is around Drew Brees. They’re very, very talented at the wide receiver position. They’re very talented at the running back position and they’re very talented at the tight end position. It creates matchup issues, not only for our team but for any team that the New Orleans Saints play.”

The Falcons (1-1) had a dud game in Pittsburgh in their opener followed by a near-perfect game in routing Arizona in Week 2. If you’ve followed the Falcons at all, you know they limped to a 9-7 record last season with a bunch of injuries and some problems on defense.

If you followed the Falcons at all through the offseason, you know they spent their downtime working on ways to level the playing field with the Saints. They made one big move in free agency, signing Dunta Robinson. A team that hadn’t had a No. 1 cornerback in several years now does and that could help against Brees and his cast of receivers. The Falcons also drafted outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a guy who has the speed to match up with New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey and the ability to surprise Brees with blitzes.

Let’s turn back to the guy who can see the whole field for a scouting report on Atlanta’s defense.

“I think they’re as talented on defense as I’ve ever seen them,’’ Brees said. “They’ve got very active and athletic front four as well as some linebackers that can fly around, make all of the plays and a lot of tackles, get involved in the pressure packages quite a bit. Everybody in their secondary is pretty athletic with pretty good ball skills, and I just think they work well as a group collectively.’’

The volleys of praise could continue going back and forth a lot longer. The Saints and Falcons may be genuine in their respect for each other. But, in the best rivalry in the NFC South, all the sweet talk will go out the window when the Saints and Falcons hit the field Sunday.

Southern hospitality is one thing. Supremacy in the NFC South is something else entirely, and that’s what the Falcons and Saints will be playing for Sunday.

Perfection wasn't required for Saints

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
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Drew BreesDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireDrew Brees completed 27 of 36 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings.
NEW ORLEANS -- They unfurled a Super Bowl championship banner in the Superdome on Thursday night. But did the New Orleans Saints roll out a Super Bowl team?

Well, it sure didn't look like it on first glance, but that might be a bit misleading when you give it a second and third look.

Carve it up however you want, because aside from one impressive opening drive, this wasn’t last year’s formula of Drew Brees throwing darts all day or Gregg Williams’ opportunistic defense scoring points or helping create them or the special teams pulling off miracle plays.

This wasn’t pretty and it sure wasn’t perfect. But this was a win and that really is all that matters. The Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 14-9 in an NFC Championship Game rematch that looked absolutely nothing like January’s NFC Championship Game, a 31-28 Saints win.

This wasn’t a thrilling shootout between Brees and Brett Favre. Fourteen points would have been a good quarter for Brees most of last season. It simply was good enough this time around.

“At the end of the day, our objective is to win ball games,’’ offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “We’ll watch the tape and I’m sure we’ll make a ton of corrections. But to go out against a great opponent like the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 and come away with a win, I think that’s a great night.’’

A great night that will always be remembered because the Saints hung a championship banner from the rafters, hosted a parade before the game and rolled out a giant replica of the Lombardi Trophy on a parade float on the field. Schools let kids out early, fans who weren’t even going to the game clustered near the Superdome for hours before the game and it was a night for the ages in New Orleans.

The Saints celebrated their Super Bowl XLIV victory one last time, and now it’s time to focus on Super Bowl XLV. Believe it or not, at 1-0 and in first place in the NFC South, the Saints still have a shot. Correct?

All those who are ready to write off the Saints because they weren’t anywhere near dominant against the Vikings are missing the point by half a mile. Winning may be new in these parts and that’s led to a sudden expectation that the Saints should be perfect every time they play.

Guess what? It simply doesn’t work that way.

“People want us to be perfect all the time and we want to be perfect all the time,’’ cornerback Tracy Porter said. “But this is real life. You can’t be perfect every week. But when you go out there and weather the storm like we did and come away with a win, that’s only going to make you stronger. It’s Week 1 and nobody’s going to be perfect in Week 1. You get better as the season goes on and you win championships by playing your best football in December and January.’’

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans Saints banner
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Saints unveiled their championship banner before the start of Thursday's game.
September is the time to grow and it’s fair to say the Saints of Thursday night were not playing at the same level they were the last time they saw the Vikings or when they defeated the Colts in the Super Bowl. It’s probably also fair to say that no NFL team is going to come out this weekend and play better than the Saints were at the end of last season. They were pretty much flawless back in those days -- or were they? Heck, Favre put up a ton of yards on the Saints in the NFC Championship Game and it took some big plays on special teams for the Saints to get by the Colts.

Maybe what has gotten lost in all the celebration since February is that the Saints weren’t perfect all last season. They were just very good and they got better at the right time.

Yeah, Adrian Peterson made the run defense look bad at times Thursday and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe exposed some problems at outside linebacker, where the Saints still are trying to figure out what they’ve got after losing apparent starter Jonathan Casillas with a foot injury in the preseason finale.

Maybe this defense didn’t beat up Favre the way it did in the NFC Championship Game. But the bottom line is Favre completed 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Those aren’t the type of numbers that are going to shred a defense, and Favre may be one of the best quarterbacks the Saints see all year.

“Brett Favre is Brett Favre,’’ Porter said. “He’s a high-caliber quarterback and they’re a good team. But there’s been a lot of hype about this game for months because of Brett Favre and the whole NFC Championship rematch. There also was a lot of talk about how we really didn’t beat them the last time, that they more or less lost it and we just got lucky. Well, this time, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we won.’’

A very valid point and speaking of points, let’s remember that the Saints allowed only nine points to what’s supposed to be a good offense. Speaking a little more about points, let’s remember that the 14 points scored by the Saints is the fewest they’ve scored in a win since Sean Payton has been the coach.

Add it all up and it comes out to a win for the Saints. Same as last year at this time. The Saints started off with one win, ran the streak to 13 straight before coming down to earth a bit, then got their act together for the postseason.

Not all of last year’s wins were flawless and the fact the Saints didn’t just blow the Vikings out of the Superdome isn’t a sign that this team is suddenly crumbling. It’s a sign that the Saints are where they need to be.

“We just worry about the wins at the end,’’ Payton said. “It’s a good defense and credit them. I’ve been saying all week that this is a different game by two different teams. We can’t draw comparisons, although we’d like to, to that type of game a year ago. So, regardless of how you win them, we are at a spot right now where I think our players expect to win and that’s what is most important.’’

What’s most important from here on out is that the Saints stop looking back at the Super Bowl. They need to look back at what they didn’t do well Thursday night and start fixing it. If they can do that, they might have another Super Bowl to look forward to.

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