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Saints still playing, but much stands between them and repeat

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- First things first. The New Orleans Saints avoided becoming another Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs.

So they've got that going for them.

Other than actually making the postseason, not much has been the same for the Saints. Gone are the perks of being a No. 1 seed in the NFC, a bye week and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Say hello to potentially having to win three road games to simply earn a crack at another Super Bowl crown.

Sean Payton's bunch are back in the playoffs, but this time around they're not as strong and face more pressure. (AP)  
Sean Payton's bunch are back in the playoffs, but this time around they're not as strong and face more pressure. (AP)  
So needless to say, the Saints have a vastly more complex route to repeat as champs this postseason, which shouldn't surprise many considering they simply haven't been as good as they were in 2009.

A running game that ranked sixth (131.6 yards per game) in the NFL last season ranks 28th (94.8) in 2010. Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush missed a combined 18 games with ankle and leg injuries. Undrafted rookie free agent Chris Ivory displayed sparks at times as the team's leading rusher, but Ivory's violent rushing style caused several different injuries, including one he sustained to his foot in the final regular-season game against Tampa Bay that landed him on injured reserve Tuesday. To make matters worse for the ground attack, New Orleans placed Thomas on injured reserve Wednesday with an ankle injury.

As a partial byproduct, Drew Brees has thrown twice as many interceptions (22) as last season (11). Coach Sean Payton's lack of confidence in the banged-up running game placed even more offensive onus on Brees. With Brees averaging 41 pass attempts per game, defenses have seemingly blitzed Brees more than ever, and it has affected his decision making, accuracy and health as he fought through a knee injury through much of the first half.

You won't find Brees lacking in confidence, though.

"I think the big thing for us is that it doesn't matter what the road we travel is whether it's home-field advantage last year or potentially having to travel the road the entire playoffs," Brees said. "Obviously it's one game at a time. You can never look past the opponent you're playing. This is single elimination now. It's all about fighting tooth and nail whatever you can do to win a game and move on to the next one."

The defense has bailed out Brees and the offense numerous times, but not in the same fashion as last year's bunch. Coordinator Gregg Williams helped the unit move swiftly up the total defense charts, and the Saints finished the season fourth in the league in total defense and seventh in fewest points allowed. Both are marked changes from Williams' first season in New Orleans.

But Williams' constant battle cry of creating turnovers -- the defense's calling card a year ago -- has fallen on deaf ears. New Orleans ranks dead last in interceptions with only nine compared to last season's 26, third in the NFL.

The combination of Brees' nasty interception habit and the defense's inability to create turnovers has reversed the turnover ratio from a sparkling plus-11 in 2009 to minus-6 in 2010. Just for reference, the Patriots ended the regular season at plus-28.

Brees and just about every other player has screamed from the heavens that this season was a new team. They've been right.

So it's little wonder the Saints have been flying under the radar since making a playoff push after a nice win against the Steelers on Halloween night.

"We didn't look at it like we were disrespected and I don't know who in the locker room does," safety Darren Sharper said, who may have to start his first game of the season with budding second-year safety Malcolm Jenkins sustaining a knee injury during Week 17 against the Bucs. "You just kind of go into a season and people have a prediction about who's going to do what. Someone is trying to look into a season and evaluate who's going to do what. But we don't look at it as disrespect.

"We look at it as an opportunity to showcase who we are," Sharper said. "When a game starts, all that motivation's thrown out the window. The team that is the best is the one that takes care of the football and doesn't hurt themselves and finds ways to get the football from the opponent. Those are the ways that we got to the Super Bowl. So that's the main thing we focus on."

Despite popular belief because of the Seattle Seahawks' 7-9 record, the Saints will be in a testy situation Saturday afternoon.

If you beat Seattle, it's expected because you're a double-digit favorite despite playing in Qwest Field. If you lose to Seattle, you're probably a bigger joke for losing to a 7-9 NFC West champ than you would be if you were 10-6 like the Giants and Bucs and miss the playoffs entirely -- Super Bowl champs or not.

The pressure will be squarely on the Saints on Saturday.

Linebacker Scott Shanle said that's where last year's playoff experience will have to come into play.

"When you know you can do it, you've accomplished it, just that confidence in the back of your mind knowing that you've traveled that journey before," Shanle said. "Obviously this year will be a little bit different just because last year we had a first-round bye. That journey is going to take a different course. Knowing we have the ability to accomplish the ultimate goal is huge."

There's one other thing from last year Brees said the team did carry over.

"Our expectations are the exact same as when we went into the season," Brees said. "There's no reason why we can't go back and do this again. Has it been difficult? Absolutely. It's brought us together. I feel like we have the potential to be an even better team than last year. Last year was awesome. It was special, but I feel like this team can accomplish that same thing. It's going to be extremely hard. We have our work cut out for us."

Even against Seattle.

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