Saints have the elements to be a playoff contender

By Ed Daniels, Clarion Herald Sports

Sean Payton is big on themes, and moments after the Saints’ last preseason game, he was quick to turn the page, and so were his players.

“Coach mentioned that the last five years, we haven’t won the opening game,” said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. “We are going to see what we can do to  change that.”

The last Saints’ victory to start the season was in 2013, when a last-second pass in the end zone to Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was batted away.

If you are wondering why the Saints get off to slow starts, here’s a number for the Saints’ defense to ponder. In those five opening-game losses, the Saints have scored an average of 29 points a game.

Getting some defensive stops might be, as they say, a point of emphasis this week.

On the way to 13 wins a year ago, the Saints had their share of good fortune. Opponents missed five extra points and six field goals. Missed points-after-touchdowns by the other team were giant in wins over Cleveland and Baltimore.

So, the Saints could have as good a team or better than last year and not win as many games. But, my guess is, only a spate of injuries will keep the Saints out of the playoffs.

Even without a first-round pick, sent to Green Bay, the Saints appear to have had a very productive draft. The offensive line, good last year, has a chance to be absolutely dominating. In training camp, rookie center Erik McCoy distinguished himself as soon as the pads came on.

It was easy to spot, and if you don’t believe me, take the word of left tackle Terron Armstead.

“First day in pads you saw the physicality,” Armstead said. “Guys in OTAs (the NFL’s version of spring practice) are running around doing things that are just not totally football. He was so much more of a physical presence with the pads on.”

The Saints are also deep in the secondary, something that few of the 32 NFL teams can claim.

The Saints have some issues. Their wide receiver corps after Michael Thomas has some questions marks. And, in the opener Monday night against Houston, the Saints will play without starting defense tackles David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins.

But, compared to other teams, there are far fewer questions. The Saints still have a Hall of Fame quarterback, a very talented young core, stability in management and no off-the-field drama.

The only thing they can do now is win and get another chance to erase a pair of improbable losses in the playoffs.

At the New Orleans Quarterback Club, Saints owner Gayle Benson said the following: “We have had some heartbreaking ends to our last two Saints seasons. However, I truly believe those experiences have strengthened our resolve and determination.”

She added, “Our roster is as deep and talented as any I can recall.”

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

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