NFL Nation: Saints-Colts unbeaten

Will the Saints go unbeaten?

December, 2, 2009
The headline suggests a question worthy of debate.

Maybe my answer doesn’t fit that mode, but I’m sticking with it. It’s real simple and I’m not leaving the door open to wiggle out of what I’m about to say.

The New Orleans Saints should go undefeated.

As ridiculous as it may sound to say, a 15-1 or 14-2 season would be a disappointment. Now that the Saints have gotten through the supposedly mighty Patriots in such convincing fashion, there’s really no reason they shouldn’t go undefeated the rest of the regular season.

New Orleans has the second-easiest schedule in the league for the last five games. Its remaining opponents have a combined .400 winning percentage. Let's break it down:

Sunday at Washington: This is one of three road games and weather could be a bit of an issue for a team that’s used to playing in a dome and passes the ball so much. The temperature is supposed to be in the mid-40s and there’s a 20 percent chance of precipitation. But, come on, it’s the Redskins. They’ve got almost as many problems as Tiger Woods. If the Saints are half as good as they were Monday night, they should cruise.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesDrew Brees' 112.6 passer rating is tops among all quarterbacks.
Dec. 13 at Atlanta: When the Falcons played the Saints nose to nose in the Superdome on Nov. 2, I thought the trip to the Georgia Dome would be a heck of a rematch and a huge obstacle to an undefeated season. I don’t think so anymore. We don’t know how long Matt Ryan and Michael Turner and all of those other banged-up Falcons are going to be out. But the Falcons aren’t the same team they were back in early November. They struggled to beat the Buccaneers in Week 12 at home. The Saints are a little bit better than the Bucs.

Dec. 19 at home against Dallas: The Cowboys are easily the best team on New Orleans’ schedule. But I have two questions for you:

1. When’s the last time Dallas won a game that really meant anything?

2. You really think a Saturday night crowd in the Superdome is going to allow the Saints to lose?

Dec. 27 at home with Tampa Bay: It’s the Buccaneers and it's at home. Enough said.

Jan. 3 at Carolina: Even if the Saints are 15-0 and have home-field advantage locked up for the playoffs, I can’t see any way Sean Payton would sit his starters. Going 16-0 and carrying incredible momentum into the playoffs would be too much incentive. Besides, I strongly suspect the Carolina tents could be folded by then and John Fox could be coaching his last game with the Panthers. The Saints will be playing for a spot in the history books.

Here’s how national writers John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli see it.

Clayton: Having the Minnesota Vikings on their heels may allow the Saints to have the perfect regular season. Sunday’s game between the Cardinals and Vikings could determine how that might work out.

If the Vikings beat the Cardinals, there is a good chance Minnesota could go 14-2 or 15-1. If that happens, the Saints might need a 16-0 season to have home field in the playoffs. That’s why I give the Saints the best chance to go undefeated. They have the second-easiest closing schedule in football, playing teams with a combined record of 22-33. The Falcons (in Atlanta on Dec. 13) and Dallas Cowboys (in New Orleans on Dec. 19) are New Orleans’ remaining opponents with winning records.

As long as the Vikings keep winning, the Saints need to keep winning. That means Drew Brees keeps playing and Sean Payton keeps calling plays. The Saints’ final two games are against the 1-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a Carolina Panthers team that might be in the last days of coach John Fox’s tenure.

I think the Saints can go unbeaten. They might need to do that to get two home games in the playoffs.

Pasquarelli: Given their offensive display against the New England Patriots on Monday night, and a December schedule that is difficult but not daunting, it’s hard to fathom the New Orleans Saints dropping a game to anyone this regular season.

But more than their high-octane performance, and the worthiness of their five remaining opponents, it is the Minnesota Vikings that will motivate New Orleans. Unlike the Colts, who can virtually breeze to the AFC home-field advantage, the Saints own just a one-game edge over the Vikings.

The Saints are 6-0 at home, but they are averaging more points on the road (37.4) than at the Superdome (36.7). But there is something about playing in front of their raucous loyalists that, combined with the one-game proximity of the Vikings, will keep the Saints motivated throughout December.

As is the case with the Colts, the Saints have been forced recently to play with an undermanned secondary, but ultra-aggressive coordinator Gregg Williams continues to dial up blitzes to camouflage any deficiencies. Couple that with an offense that is averaging 37 points per game, and which has scored 30 or more points on eight occasions (four times with 40-plus points), and New Orleans has every reason to believe it will stay undefeated.

Will the Colts go unbeaten?

December, 2, 2009
I don’t see the Colts going undefeated through the regular season. I am certain they aren’t going to be heartbroken if or when it doesn’t happen.

They could lose Sunday to Tennessee, a hot and dangerous team that’s played as well or better than the Colts in recent weeks. The AFC South rivals have split the season series the past three years -- though a couple of games at the end of those seasons had no meaning for one or both teams. The Titans are seeking to avenge a 31-9 loss on "Sunday Night Football" Oct. 11 and have far more to lose as they try to claw their way into the wild-card picture.

But even if the Colts beat the Titans, they’ll drop at least a game down the stretch when they take their foot off the gas. Coach Jim Caldwell and president Bill Polian have each made it clear that an undefeated season isn’t the team’s goal. Polian says momentum heading into the playoffs is an overrated concept.

Like the Titans, the Broncos will have more on the line than the Colts when they visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 13.

A team that’s been beat up a lot this year will rest a lot of injured or tired players in games that don’t mean anything at the end of the season. Pull Dwight Freeney, Clint Session and Antoine Bethea off the defense and even the Jets and Bills will find yards. And is Jim Sorgi throwing to Hank Baskett going to put fear into New York or Buffalo?

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireFlirting with a 16-0 record is nothing new for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Indianapolis wouldn’t mind if 16-0 happened, obviously, but it’s not a primary goal. And dropping a couple of games late after a long undefeated stretch is hardly new territory for the franchise -- it was 7-0 in 2007, 9-0 in 2006 and 13-0 in 2005.

Getting in position to win in the playoffs trumps everything. It hasn’t been something this team’s done well outside of its 2006 championship season. But it’s hardly thinking of an undefeated regular season as any sort of prerequisite.

Here’s how national writers John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli see it.

Clayton: The reason the Colts will not go 16-0 is because they don’t need to go 16-0. At different times during Manning’s incredible career, the Colts have flirted with the perfect regular season. Once they clinched home field, they started to think ahead to the playoffs, which left them vulnerable to a loss. That will be the case again this year.

Their remaining five games are winnable. They play teams with a combined record of 27-28, the 14th-easiest closing schedule in the league. Indianapolis’ only two remaining opponents with winning records are the Broncos (Dec. 13) and Jaguars (Dec. 17). They can win those games. But it’s also possible for the Colts to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs once they get to 13 wins. Once that happens, the Colts will focus on the playoffs.

Manning, Polian and everyone who has been around the organization realize the idea is to win two games in the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl. That’s why they will start figuring out how to rest starters, including Manning, in the final three weeks. If that happens, they could lose to the Jets on Dec. 27 or the Bills on Jan. 3.

Pasquarelli: In winning their past five games by a total of 18 points, all with fourth-quarter comebacks, the Colts have demonstrated a remarkable resourcefulness. But in doing so, they have also rung up not only the division title, but also a three-game lead over all other AFC franchises, and are poised to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It would take a monumental collapse in December for the Colts to have to leave Lucas Oil Stadium for a postseason game, and the likelihood of that is extremely remote. On the other hand, once they clinch that right, there is no other carrot to dangle in front of the noses of the prideful Colts, save for a perfect season. And remaining unbeaten going into the playoffs isn’t a big priority for a Colts team that has now been to the postseason eight straight times, but owns just one Super Bowl ring.

The priority for Indianapolis, as always, remains winning a championship, not every regular-season outing. Polian earlier this week debunked the importance of momentum entering the playoffs. That admission could be a tacit tip-off to the Colts’ strategy of resting some starters in December, and remaining as healthy as possible for the postseason. The Colts, who play every game with great intensity, will succumb to a degree of human nature once they clinch home-field advantage, and ratchet down just a hair, enough to drop a close game to someone.