My hometown New Orleans Saints start their 2012 NFL preseason campaign tonight against the Arizona Cardinals in a game I have no plans on watching. Nonetheless, I am excited about tonight’s game because it means the NFL regular season is almost here.
The Saints are 37-11 over the past three regular seasons – tied for the best record in the NFL with the New England Patriots. This is without a doubt the Golden Age of New Orleans Saints football. It has been super, but how much longer can it last? Will this be the season that the franchise returns to its inglorious past? Or will the team overcome head coach Sean Payton’s yearlong suspension for Bountygate and reign over the NFC South again?
It’s time for (way too early) predictions!
Week 1: Washington Redskins. Prediction: Saints, 34-17. First game for heralded Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III makes this a particularly noteworthy opening day game. Unless he lines up at cornerback though Saints QB Drew Brees will torch the Redskins’ secondary of misfit toys and turn this into a blowout.
Week 2: @Carolina Panthers. Prediction: Panthers, 31-28. Last season, Brees and Co. sneaked out of Charlotte with a last minute victory in then-rookie QB Cam Newton’s fifth NFL start. This season, the Panthers have an improved D, led by the return of middle linebacker Jon Beason, and the Saints secondary is leaky and thin at cornerback. Panthers D makes one more play in offensive shootout.
Week 3: Kansas City Chiefs. Prediction: Saints, 41-24. Maybe Chiefs rookie defensive tackle Dontari Poe will prove one day he was worthy of the 11th overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft. I don’t expect that day to be in Week 3 against the Saints’ three-headed rushing attack of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram. I would be very surprised if the Saints don’t exploit the Chiefs’ charitable rush defense, which ranked 26th in the NFL last season.
Week 4: @Green Bay Packers. Prediction: Packers, 38-31. Saints starting cornerback Jabari Greer is out for the preseason with a groin injury. The team’s other starting corner, Patrick Robinson, showed glimpses of why he was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. It remains to be seen as he will fare as a full-time starter though. I don’t see the Saints D getting enough stops against Packers QB Aaron Rodgers to win at Lambeau Field.
Week 5: San Diego Chargers. Prediction: Saints, 30-24. Drew Brees and Darren Sproles against their old team. A prime-time game in the Dome. 70,000 people Mardi Gras drunk. I wouldn’t pick against the Saints.
Week 6: Bye.
Week 7: @Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prediction: Saints, 45-20. The Bucs have defeated the Saints each of the past three seasons. Take them out of the equation and the Bless You Boys are 38-8 overall in the regular season. My gut tells me this season the Saints take two from the Bucs, starting with this road contest. One glimpse at the Bucs’ defensive depth chart and you’ll know why.
Week 8: @Denver Broncos. Prediction: Saints, 30-28. This is not a homer pick. I repeat: This is not a homer pick. New Broncos QB Peyton Manning is 36 years old and missed the entire 2011 season due to a neck injury. Even if he is healthy Father Time is beginning to creep up on him. If the Saints offensive line can keep Brees upright – a tough task when they’re going up against Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller – I like the Saints’ chances to come out of this one 5-2.
Week 9: Philadelphia Eagles. Prediction: Eagles, 33-27. Throw a big asterisk on this one. If Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is still healthy at this point in the season – a mighty big if, I realize – the Eagles have too many offensive weapons for the Saints to contain. Then again, there’s the X factor of the Saints playing in the Dome on a Monday night. I am going to say the big-play capabilities of Vick, running back LaSean McCoy, and wideouts Jeremy Maclin and Dasean Jackson make this is a rare home less for the Saints.
Week 10: Atlanta Falcons. Prediction: Saints, 38-35. This could turn out to be a pivotal game for the Saints’ 2012 season. I foresee Julio Jones having his way with the Saints’ corners – actually, having his way with the entire NFL in his season season. But I see the Saints’ offense moving the ball on the ground and through the air. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham might turn out to be a rich man’s Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons’ surefire Hall of Fame tight end, when he hangs up his pads.
Week 11: @Oakland Raiders. Prediction: Saints, 44-14. Brees might as well be going against the secondary of the Arena Football League’s New Orleans Voodoo. That might be an insult to the Voodoo’s secondary. Check out the Raiders’ starting cornerbacks. Wow! One more thing: Raiders running back Darren McFadden is a stud but his past history suggests he will be hurt by this point in the season. His backup: Mike Goodson, a former Panther with 125 career carries in three seasons.
Week 12: San Francisco 49ers. Prediction: Saints, 34-24. The Saints still have no answer for Niners tight end Vernon Davis, who obliterated them in last season’s playoffs. However, I am a firm believer that Alex Smith’s 2011 stats were a fluke – notably, his five interceptions. Drew Brees will, however, continue to be Drew Brees. Saints get a measure of revenge for last season’s heartbreaking playoff loss and move to 8-3.
Week 13: @Atlanta Falcons. Prediction: Falcons, 38-27. Four days after the Saints host the Niners in what promises to be a physical contest the Who Dats travel to Atlanta for a Thursday night contest. This is great for the NFL Network, which for once has a meaningful game. It is not good, however, for the Saints. The Falcons’ offense will once again blitzkrieg the Saints, and I expect their defense, particularly corners Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson, and Brent Grimes, to defend better against Brees and Co.
Week 14: @New York Giants. Prediction: Saints, 34-30. Contrary to the perception of the Giants being strong closers they are not great in the month of December. The reigning Super Bowl champion Giants are 6-6 overall in the month of December the past three seasons, including 2-5 at home. On paper, the Giants appear to have the stronger team. Their December track record makes me think this is a game the Saints can and will steal.
Week 15: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prediction: Saints, 40-17. Recent history compels me to consider the possibility the undermanned Bucs could upset the Saints here. However, as I said earlier, the Bucs defense is not ready for prime time, and will make rookie head coach Greg Schiano wish he hadn’t left Rutgers.
Week 16: @Dallas Cowboys. Prediction: Saints, 27-20. If I were a betting man, I would bet that Cowboys QB Tony Romo will not play in this game. Why? The Cowboys’ offensive line is a bit of a trainwreck. That leaves Kyle Orton to fill the position. Maybe he can lead the Cowboys to a win over the Saints but I doubt it. By this point, the Saints should have clinched the NFC South.
Week 17: Carolina Panthers. Prediction: Panthers, 31-23. Is it possible that the streaking Panthers could knock the Saints out of a first round bye and clinch a playoff berth in the final week of the season? It’s not only possible but I see it happening. Cam Newton is the type of player who can elevate his team and he will do that in his sophomore season. Still, the Saints go 11-5 and win the division for the third time in four years.