Saints could be a post-season contender – if …

Have you heard this?

If you haven’t, you will, with the Saints opener in three weeks at Minnesota. That is, the Saints on a Monday night in Minnesota is a must win. Especially with New England, Carolina and Miami to follow.

Here’s some reality: In the NFL, to be a playoff team, you don’t have to be THAT good. Think about it.

The Saints lost seven games in 2016 by fewer than seven points. In Week 2 at New York, the Giants blocked a Wil Lutz field goal and returned it for a touchdown in a three-point New York win. A three-point loss at Carolina included a Lutz field goal attempt that was blocked and set up a touchdown.

And, a two-point loss to Denver at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome happened on a blocked point after touchdown inside two minutes. The block was returned for the winning two points by the Broncos.

With a bad defense and poor special teams, the Saints still won seven. The offense was terrific. The Saints led the NFL in fourth-quarter points. Drew Brees threw for the most yards since his 2011 season. Brees threw the most touchdown passes since the 2013 season.

And, Brees has a chance to be even better.

In his 2017 football preview, analyst Warren Sharp said the Saints faced the third-most difficult schedule of defenses last season. This year, according to Sharp, the Saints face the fifth-easiest.

The Saints special teams appear to be better. Lutz, with an assist from kicking coach Kevin O’Dea, made his last 13 tries in 2016. And, by adding Ted Ginn and rookie Alvin Kamara, the Saints figure to be a much better return team.

The defense? Who knows.The Saints have several veteran candidates at linebacker but no standout. And, the defensive line took a huge hit when heart issues sidelined defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the season and possibly a career.

What the Saints do have is more good young players on their roster for the first time in about five years. The 2014 draft class was a disaster, 2015 looks mediocre, but in 2016, the Saints added Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell and Sheldon Rankins.

And, during training camp, Kamara and second-round pick safety Marcus Williams look to be keepers. So, barring a spate of injuries in the preseason, the Saints don’t look like a 10-win team, but they don’t look like a six-win team either.

A hot start, a season of relative health and an improvement in turnover margin (minus-2 in 2016) could get the Saints to the postseason.

In 2016, only two teams in the NFC, Green Bay and Seattle, repeated as playoff teams. In the NFL, there’s about a 20-team gumbo that is right in the middle. To say, that it will take a giant leap in production for the Saints to take a step forward isn’t reality.

Ed Daniels is sports director of ABC26 WGNO. He can be reached at edaniels@clarionherald.org.

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