Sean Payton is coach of the year. Drew Brees is the All-Pro quarterback.
Those honors are nice.
But they are nothing next to the possibilities that await the New Orleans Saints if they can beat Philadelphia at the Superdome on Saturday night. It would get them to the first championship game in the team’s mostly dismal 40-season history, and move them one step from the Super Bowl a season after going 3-13 season during a Katrina-enforced exile.
“We’ve beaten all the odds,” says wide receiver Joe Horn, who is still bothered by a groin injury.
“No one outside this locker room was even thinking we’d have a chance to be where we are right now. It speaks volumes to the football players in this locker room, the camaraderie that we have here, the chemistry that coach Payton has definitely given us the opportunity to have.”
The Saints (10-6) beat the Eagles (11-6) by 27-24 in New Orleans on Oct. 15 and are the second-seeded team in the NFC behind Chicago. The Bears play host to Seattle at 1 p.m. EST on Sunday in the other NFC game.
In the AFC semifinals, Indianapolis is at Baltimore at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and New England is at San Diego at 4:30 on Sunday.
All those franchises have far more playoff experience than the Saints, who have only one postseason win in their history, a wild-card victory over St. Louis in January 2001. Born in 1967, they didn’t even make the playoffs until 1987, and had the misfortune of having their only consistently good teams during the late ’80s and early ’90s under the senior Jim Mora, a period when the NFC was loaded with power teams.
This year, they could benefit from the opposite – a paucity of good teams in the conference.
Still, they drew the hottest NFC team in Philadelphia, winner of six straight, including a 23-20 wild-card win over the New York Giants last week on David Akers’ 38-yard field goal as time expired. All six wins have come with Jeff Garcia at quarterback in place of the injured Donovan McNabb and thanks to an enhanced running game featuring Brian Westbrook, who rushed for a career-high 141 yards on 20 carries against the Giants.
“We’ve been doing it these last few weeks and we’ve gotten better and better,” said Westbrook, who finished with 1,217 yards rushing in the regular season. “The offensive line has confidence in themselves and they have confidence in me.”
They will face a two-headed running game from New Orleans, with Deuce McAllister inside and Reggie Bush outside. Bush also is a receiving threat.
In any event, the Saints are a long way from 2005, when their season was over before it began because of the exile forced by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
“We’re still digging, we’re still fighting,” Horn says. “Hopefully the light you see at the end of the tunnel will be that sunshine in Miami.”
Indianapolis (13-4) at Baltimore (13-3)
The Colts return to the city they abandoned after the 1983 season for this matchup between the NFL’s equivalent of the unstoppable force (Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis offense) and the irresistible object (the Ravens’ defense).
The very resistable object that was Indy’s run defense stiffened against the Chiefs, allowing Larry Johnson just 32 yards on 13 carries after giving up a league-high average of 173 yards rushing a game during the season. Meanwhile, rookie Joseph Addai rushed for 122 yards in the 23-8 win.
The job will be a lot harder this week against Baltimore’s defense, which features three first- or second-team All-Pros: linebackers Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott, and safety Ed Reed. And that’s not counting Ray Lewis plus Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs, who combined for more than a third of the team’s 60 sacks, second in the league.
But these Ravens are more than a dominant defense, which was what won a Super Bowl for Baltimore six years ago. Steve McNair gives Baltimore the best quarterback it’s ever had, and Jamal Lewis, while not the Lewis of old, is capable of exploiting the Colts if they revert to their old, generous ways.
Seattle (10-7) at Chicago (13-3)
The Bears seem to be one of the least respected top-seeded teams in NFL history, due in part to a weak schedule, to injuries, and to the sometimes awful play of quarterback Rex Grossman, who had a passer rating of 0.0 in the finale against Green Bay and threw two interceptions for touchdowns.
In fact, Chicagoans spent the bye week speculating how long it might take coach Lovie Smith to replace Grossman with journeyman Brian Griese.
Forgotten is Chicago’s 37-7 win over the Seahawks on Oct. 1 in a game that wasn’t that close. The Seahawks were without RB Shaun Alexander, last season’s MVP, in that game, but they haven’t played especially well since he’s returned either. Seattle backed into the NFC West title and has been playing what it acknowledges as so-so football all season.
They Seahawks are also lucky to be here. They beat Dallas 21-20 last week when Tony Romo dropped the snap on what would have been a chip-shot field goal to put the Cowboys ahead with just over a minute remaining in Seattle.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who led Seattle to the Super Bowl last season, acknowledges he’s been part of the problem.
“Hasn’t been great,” he says of his season. “Obviously, the stats are terrible. Some of that is injury. Some of that is bad weather. And some of that is not playing well. It happens.”
If it happens this week, the Seahawks are going home.