As the final 0:10 ticked off the clock in Seattle (due to an ill-advised Marques Colston miracle-attempt), the Saints were left to wonder ‘what if’.
For the second time this year, New Orleans was bested by what proved to be a superior unit in the emerald city. They made massive strides from their first matchup though, and it’s not outrageous to think that a play here or there could have sent the Saints back on the road for the NFC Championship matchup with the 49ers instead of a date with the sofa.
Had that been the case, the Saints would enter the championship with an abundance of confidence. They topped the ‘9ers in November 23-20 in the Super Dome, holding Colin Kaepernick to under 200 yards of total offense. Despite San Francisco being one of the warmer teams in the playoffs, a win in Seattle would have given the Saints all the momentum they needed to march to victory at home.
Now, four days away from Super Bowl XLVIII, we would have spent the last week arguing for a super-relocation for Brees’ and Manning’s sake, and pundits would argue over both quarterback’s (and overall offenses) limitations in the elements.
But come Sunday at 6:45, how would a Saints vs. Broncos Super Bowl play out?
We open on a field rife with frost.
The Broncos, sporting their traditional home orange, stick out like the pylons in the end zone.
The Saints, in crisp whites, blend in seamlessly to the fabric of the landscape.
This matchup pits the league’s best offense against its fourth best defense. That may not be quite as appealing as number one versus number one, but the matchup is a bit more complex than rankings alone.
Rob Ryan likes creates pressure on the quarterback by bringing exotic blitzes and confusing the opposing offensive line and quarterback alike. Seattle, although perhaps more potent, is much more traditional in its pass rush.
You’re not going to confuse Peyton Manning; however, that extra wrinkle created by Ryan and the athletic front seven at his disposal makes for one more situation Manning needs to prepare for.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints are the league’s fourth best offense, and through the air they’re second to only the Broncos. Despite Russell Wilson’s athleticism, New Orleans presents a much tougher opponent than Seattle’s 17th ranked offense, and the one place Denver has struggled mightily on defense is in the secondary.
Add to that the loss of their most reliable defensive back in Chris Harris and this matchup looks to lean heavily towards the Saints.
History would also give a slight edge to the Saints (if history can give an edge in the first place). The Saints and Drew Brees are 1-0 against Manning-led teams in Super Bowls, beating the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV circa 2009.
Statistically Manning played a pretty great game, completing nearly 70% of his passes for 333 yards and a touchdown. However, he also through the game-clinching pick-six to then-Saint Tracy Porter that sealed the Saints’ first Super Bowl victory.
That game took place in a rain-soaked Miami, which although is not the same as 30 degrees and snowing it also isn’t a climate-controlled dome. In the (relative) elements Brees was able to find the endzone two times while only throwing seven total incompletions and no interceptions.
As for how that translates to this year, there are only a few comparisons to make.
First off, this year’s Saints defense was much stronger than that of the Super Bowl winning team. Their (perceived) lack of veteran leadership was gapped by younger guys growing up a bit; including Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan and defensive back Malcolm Jenkins.
They’ve also been reenergized by Rob Ryan’s eclectic system, to the tune of becoming the league’s fourth best pass rush unit and sacking opposing quarterbacks more this year than in the past 11 seasons (49 total sacks).
Unfortunately for New Orleans, Manning’s offense has also improved since 2009.
As formidable as Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Joseph Addai are they are nowhere near as potent as this year’s Broncos’ unit (I submit to evidence the myriad of records broken by The Sheriff and his posse). This Denver offense is perhaps the most diverse group of individuals we’ve seen on a football field in a long time, and of course they are all choreographed on the field by the league’s greatest football mind.
Practically, the matchups that create the most havoc for the New Orleans defense are Julius Thomas and Eric Decker. As dangerous as Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker are, the Saints have defensive backs in Keenan Lewis and Cory White that match up relatively well with both of their strengths; however, the Saints don’t have answers for the 6-foot-5 Thomas and 6-foot-3 Decker.
As good as the Saints’ linebackers are, they are not built to cover athletic tight ends, and if Ryan pulls one of his safeties down to cover J. Thomas he loses that deep safety blanket and leaves his defense vulnerable to a big play.
Offensively, the Saints present many of the same issues to the Broncos that they’re receiving on the other end. Especially without Chris Harris the Broncos defensive backfield will have fits with Jimmy Graham. They’ve also been a bit shaky covering the big play; enter Kenny Stills and his propensity for the big-time catch.
Perhaps the Saints’ biggest offensive advantage could have been their options out of the backfield.
Between Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, and Darren Sproles, the Saints had presented a pretty potent running attack in the first two games of the playoffs. Ingram went off for nearly 100 yards in their win against the Eagles, and the Ingram/Robinson duo combined for over 100 yards against Seattle.
What’s more, if there’s anywhere the Broncos struggle it’s against teams with a multifaceted running game. For example, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead gave Denver fits through the air and on the ground in their only home loss of the season. That being said, we all know how well that worked in the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, the Broncos have yet to allow more than 17 points in post season play this year. Even scarier, they’ve barely hit their stride offensively and the games have still looked like a varsity squad playing against the JV.
At the end of the day, attempting to poke holes in the Broncos right now is similar to trying to sink a ship with Miley Cyrus’ foam finger. You can try all you want but eventually your arm will get tired and the boat will still be breaking all time floating records.
This is the Broncos year; it has been since the very beginning.
Whether it’s the Seahawks, Saints, or ’85 Bears, they are always going to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Like this story? CLICK HERE to read the Saints mailbag, grading each defensive position grouping.