1) I picked the Saints as my NFC Super Bowl representative in 2014. While they do sit atop the NFC South, they are 4-5 and look far from a contender. Why have the Saints been struggling in 2014?
The Saints were the trendy pick for representing the NFC in the Super Bowl this year indeed and there were two main factors for that: a) The Sean Payton offense led by Drew Brees was expected once again to be amongst the league's elite b) The defense, a top five unit last year, was expected to, at least, maintain its status in year-two under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. So what happened?
a) The offense has been good, as they rank near the top of the NFL rankings in several key categories. The problem is that they have turned the ball over at an alarming rate. As a team, the Saints are -8 in turnover ratio, which has directly led to several of their losses.
b) The defense has been a major letdown. Although it was a bit unreasonable to expect them to stay in the top five like they were in 2013, most people expected them to be at least in the upper echelon in the league. Instead, the Saints are ranked 26th in the NFL by football Outsiders (8.3% total DVOA), below average against the pass (22nd, 13.9% DVOA) and not much better against the run (29th, 1.1% DVOA).
Mix a good-yet-careless offense with a well-below average defense and you have a 4-5 record after nine games.
2) Drew Brees is on pace for another 5,000+ yard, 30+ touchdown season, but he is also on pace for 18 interceptions, which would tie for the second-most of his career and his most interceptions since 2010 (22). Why is Brees turning the ball over at such a high rate in 2014?
Drew Brees in 2014 reminds me of the Drew Brees of 2012. That year, the Saints were historically putrid on defense, Sean Payton was suspended for the whole season and Brees felt like he had to shoulder the load and score a touchdown on every play. This year, Payton is here, but the defense has grossly underachieved. With New Orleans having started the season so poorly, it seems to me that at times Brees has tried to win games with one throw, flipping the ball while being tackled, forcing passes into double or triple coverage, taking unnecessary chances. After the 49ers game, Brees recognized that he had been a bit too careless with the ball and said all the right things about abandoning his gunslinging ways. That remains to be seen on the field.
3) The Saints have always been known for their passing attack, but the 2014 Saints can run the ball as well. What is behind the resurgence of the Saints running attack?
There are two major factors behind the Saints running game being as good as it has been in 2014: 1) The Saints have been able to run the ball effectively when they've wanted to. 2) Because of that success, Sean Payton has run the ball this year at times when he wouldn't have done so in past years.
Payton wants to pass the ball, that's his pedigree. He has been known to quickly abandon the run in a given game after a few rushing plays were stuffed. This year, New Orleans offensive line has been very good at run blocking and Payton, who is a smart coach, has realized that more rushing does two good things for him: a) keeps his poor defense on the sidelines and b) protects his quarterback, who has taken a few too many hits already this year.
To make things even better for New Orleans' running game, Mark Ingram, who has mostly been a disappointment in his four-year NFL career, has suddenly emerged as the workhorse running back in the Saints offense. Can he be durable and last in this role? Only time will tell.
4) The Saints lost last Sunday in heart-breaking fashion. How/do you see that game affecting this Sunday's game?
It is obviously pretty hard to predict how a team or even a player will react to any given loss. However, in his career, Drew Brees has been known to rebound from really bad games. Against the 49ers, he threw two picks and lost a fumble. All of these turnovers had a crucial influence on the Saints losing that game. I fully expect head coach Sean Payton to have his veteran team ready to start another home-winning streak and similarly, I think Brees will be extra motivated to quiet down his growing number of doubters.
5) If you were the Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, how/where would you attack the Saints defense? If you were Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, how/where would you attack this Saints offense?
When Cincinnati has the ball: Keenan Lewis, the Saints best cornerback, is likely going to miss this game with a knee injury. If I'm Hue Jackson, I drop back as early and often as possible with Andy Dalton and I test struggling cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White with wide receivers Mohammed Sanu and A.J. Green. White and Robinson are the unquestioned weakest links of the Saints defense, and if the Bengals want to start fast on Sunday, the passing game could be their best friend.
When the Saints have the ball: This season, the tactic that has been most successful against Brees has been rushing him with four and playing seven in coverage. When teams have sat back, blanketed Jimmy Graham and covered rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, no other Saints pass catcher has consistently stepped up. Brees has then been compelled to either force throws to Graham or Cooks (and several have been picked) or to hold on to the ball longer, which has led to sacks and fumbles. Of course, this approach necessitates that the coverage be efficient in order to allow the four-man pass rush to get to Brees.
6) The AFC North is the first division since 1935 to have every team in the division at least two games over .500. The NFC South however is led by the Saints at 4-5. Who do you see winning the NFC South? And how many wins do you think are needed to win the NFC South?
The NFC South is so bad that sources told me that Commissioner Roger Goodell seriously contemplated putting the entire division on the "Commissioner Exempt List." Although I'm a Saints fan, my prediction of who will win the South isn't homer-based, but I think that this is the Saints division to lose. New Orleans has a one-game lead over the Falcons and a half-game lead over the Panthers. The Saints play both of those division rivals in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the home team simply doesn't lose very often. New Orleans also has its remaining road-games at awful Tampa Bay (1-8), against the flailing Bears (3-6) and at a Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) squad that is one of the most Jekyll and Hyde team in the league.
In view of this schedule, I think New Orleans takes the division at either 7-9 or 8-8. With a strong finish, they might make it to 9-7 or 10-6, but with three remaining road games, I just don't see it. And no, we won't be proud of it, if they win the division with a losing record. But hey a division win is a division win and once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen right?
Bonus: Who wins Sunday and why?
Most NFL teams are better at home than they are on the road, but New Orleans under Sean Payton has been an excellent home team. For illustration, last year only your Cincinnati Bengals and the New Orleans Saints went unbeaten (8-0) at home. Prior to the loss to the 49ers last Sunday, the Saints hadn't lost a home game with Sean Payton on the sidelines since the finale of the 2010 season. Of course, none of this home-winning would be happening if the Saints were a really bad team, which they aren't despite their 4-5 record.
I expect New Orleans to try and find out whether Cincinnati's run defense is as bad as its ranking says and pound the rock early and often. If the Saints are able to run successfully, I then expect them to go over the top using play-action to wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills, while the Bengals will be paying extra attention to tight end Jimmy Graham.
I see this game being tight for a while and the Saints slightly pulling away late in the second half. It's not going to be a blowout, far from it. I think the score will be something like 27-17 New Orleans.