NFL bold predictions: Here's why the New Orleans Saints will win the NFC in 2018

The New Orleans Saints have the gameplan to bring down the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. That's not just a figure of speech or a bold prediction. Saints coach Sean Payton actually has a gameplan for the Eagles. He drew it up in the aftermath of the Saints' devastating walk-off loss to the Vikings -- appropriately dubbed the Minneapolis Miracle -- even though his season was over and it was the Vikings who were advancing on to Philadelphia, where they would get absolutely pummeled.

Payton just couldn't help himself.

"You get over the tough loss. Everyone has different ways to do it. We came back after that game, we met, we began a procedure of evaluations," Payton told Pro Football Talk in the offseason. "And look, on Wednesday and Thursday, we had the Philly cut-ups. I gameplanned Philly like we were going to play them. Because I wasn't ready to stop game-planning. So, like an imaginary 'let's pretend that didn't happen.' It was just my way of dealing with it, I guess."

If all goes according to plan, Payton will get his chance to implement his gameplan during the upcoming season. 

Today, we continue with our bold prediction series by taking a look at why the Saints will emerge out of what is a stacked-beyond-belief conference. As the calendar turns from summer to fall -- more importantly, from meaningless football to meaningful football -- the Saints should be regarded as the favorites in the NFC over the Eagles, Vikings, Rams, and Packers. It has a lot to do with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Michael Thomas, but it has just as much to do with a budding defense and the additions they've welcomed into the ranks.

Desperately wish you had a 30-minutes-or-so, daily NFL podcast in your podcast app every morning by 6 a.m.? Put some Pick Six Podcast in your life and join Will Brinson as he breaks down the latest news and notes from around the league, as well as the win totals on a team-by-team schedule. It's a daily dose of football to get you right for that commute or gym trip. Subscribe: via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google Play

A season ago, the Saints -- the league's best team by DVOA, by the way -- came one play away from advancing to the NFC title game, where they would've at least put up a better fight than the Vikings. Just take it from Kamara.

"We'd beat the s--- out of [the Eagles] cause we was rolling," Kamara told Bleacher Report in August. "If we won [against the Vikings], I knew nobody was gonna stop us cause we came all the way back."

Now, beginning in just a few weeks, Kamara and the Saints will get their chance to prove the events of last postseason were a fluke.

Defense made the leap, added reinforcements 

The Saints have trotted out a high-powered offense for the past several seasons, but they've failed to make the leap from a mediocre team to a playoff team because of their defense. In 2014, the Saints ranked ninth in points scored, but 28th in points conceded. They went 7-9. In 2015, the Saints ranked eighth in points scored, but dead last in points conceded. They went 7-9. In 2016, the Saints ranked second in points scored, but 31st in points conceded. They went 7-9. You should sense a pattern here.

The 2017 Saints obliterated that pattern. Their offense was just as good as it was in years past, finishing fourth in points scored. It was their defense that finally did its part, ranking 10th in points allowed and eighth in defensive DVOA. The Saints went 11-5. For their defensive improvement, the Saints can thank one historically great draft class that birthed two star defensive backs in cornerback Marshon Lattimore (first round) and safety Marcus Williams (second round).

Lattimore, serving as the team's top cornerback, was one of the league's best cover guys, picking off five passes in 13 games and shutting down every route in the playbook.

Williams, a free safety, picked off four passes and finished as Pro Football Focus' 11th highest graded safety among 87 eligible players. He might be best known as the player who whiffed on preventing Stefon Diggs from scoring the walk-off touchdown in the Minneapolis Miracle, but he should be known as one of the game's best young defensive backs. Brees has even gone as far as comparing him to Ed Reed.

Both players will be back in 2018, and it's not unreasonable to think that they could improve considering they now have a full season of experience. But they're not the Saints' best important defensive players. That distinction belongs to defensive end Cameron Jordan, who racked up 13 sacks last season, bringing his sack total over the past five seasons to 50.5; only four players have more in that span. According to PFF, he also led the league in batted-down passes. He, too, will be back.

And he'll have some help. In free agency, the Saints did well to bring back Alex Okafor, who had 4.5 sacks in 10 games last season. The Saints then made their splashy move in the draft, trading up in the first round to grab defensive end Marcus Davenport, who gives the Saints the second dangerous pass rusher they so desperately needed considering Jordan was the only player on the Saints to finish with at least five sacks. In his final season at UTSA, Davenport collected 17.5 sacks.

Davenport's been dealing with injuries in his first summer as a pro, but he's expected to make his preseason debut this weekend. As was the case with Roquan Smith and the Bears, Davenport missing practice time in the summer shouldn't be considered a major area of concern. The most important factor is that Davenport is entering the season healthy, ready to provide the Saints with another source of pressure.

Elsewhere, the Saints maintained the status quo at linebacker -- free-agent addition Demario Davis is another fine body to add to a group that isn't really spearheaded by a star -- and the back end with veteran Kurt Coleman replacing Kenny Vaccaro at strong safety.

The Saints' defense isn't as good as the Vikings, Rams, or Eagles' defense, but that's OK. The Saints don't need to have the top-ranked defense to bring down those teams. They just need to have a defense that is good. They can attack the quarterback (tied for seventh in sacks last year) and generate turnovers (tied for ninth in takeaways). Their offense can do the rest, because it's both explosive and balanced.

Offense can attack in so many different ways 

Unlike years past, the Saints offense isn't just built around Drew Brees. The Saints are now built around their explosive ground game, though they can certainly still sling it around if necessary.

In 2017, the Saints ranked fifth in rushing, fifth in passing, fourth in points scored, and second in offensive DVOA. They're so incredibly balanced with an attack led by running backs Alvin Kamara (1,554 yards) and Mark Ingram (1,540 yards), who became the first running back duo in NFL history to each total more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

Ingram will miss the quarter of the season due to a suspension, but that might not be a bad thing. The Saints open up the season against the:

At worst, even without Ingram, the Saints are looking at a 3-1 (maybe 2-2) start. Meanwhile, Ingram, who has 1,390 touches and 6,791 total yards on his resume, will be completely fresh for the final 12 games of the regular season. After Week 4, the Saints' schedule picks up with out-of-division games against the Vikings, Rams, Eagles, and Steelers. They'll need a fresh Ingram for those games, which might decide the seeding in the playoffs.

And let's not pretend like more of Kamara is a bad thing. Kamara set the league on fire during his rookie season by averaging an insane 9.0 yards per touch, 6.1 yards per carry, and 10.2 yards per reception. Expecting him to do the same in 2018 is probably expecting the impossible unless Kamara really is the most explosive running back in NFL history, but he's going to remain an impact player.

He can turn handoffs into 74-yard touchdowns and swing passes into chunk plays.

And if the running game takes a step back, the Saints still have Drew freakin' Brees to lean on. Let that sink in: Brees, who ranks third all-time in passing yards and is tied for third in passing touchdowns with Tom Brady, is almost in a way the Saints' contingency plan on offense. 

It's amazing that Brees is an all-time great quarterback and the Saints didn't even need to rely on him a year ago. The Saints went 11-5 and Brees' MVP buzz never got louder than the dialogue in "Interstellar." Brees played well -- 72 completion percentage, 4,334 yards, 23 touchdowns, eight picks, and a 103.9 passer rating -- he just didn't need to be the Hall of Fame, cold-blooded assassin that we've grown so used to watching over the years, not with the Saints' historically great running back duo accounting for the majority of their offense. He attempted 536 passes, which marked the first time since 2009 he attempted fewer than 600 passes. From 2010-16, he averaged 656 passing attempts per season.

But the Saints can take comfort knowing that if the running game bogs down they still have Brees and the passing game to lean on. If their defense falters, they have Brees to bring them back from the dead. It's what he did in the playoffs before the Minneapolis Miracle, tossing three second-half touchdowns to overcome a 17-0 deficit and hand his defense a lead they weren't able to preserve.

It's not just Brees. Michael Thomas is the forgotten superstar receiver. In his first two seasons, he caught 196 passes for 2,382 yards and 14 touchdowns. Over the past two seasons, only three receivers have more yards than Thomas. An incredible route-runner with tremendous hands, Thomas might just be the best receiver in the league not named Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, or Odell Beckham

And he got some help this offseason. The Saints did well to take advantage of the Bears by stealing away restricted free agent Cameron Meredith. Meredith's got some legitimate injury concerns as he works his way back from a torn-up knee, but if he healthy, he's going to be one of the league's best possession receivers.

Ted Ginn is still Ted Ginn in that he's going to make his fair share of huge plays and drop a few too, while the offensive line remains strong. A year ago, they allowed only 20 sacks, the second-fewest in football. According to Football Outsiders, the Saints' offensive line was the second-best unit in terms of both run and pass blocking.

Don't expect the Saints to move away from their ground assault, but the Saints have the luxury of turning to their quarterback and asking him to win a shootout. Out of all the contenders in the NFC, the Saints have the second-best quarterback. That's not a knock on a less than 100 percent Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins, or Jared Goff, but none of those guys are Brees. The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, are the only team with a better quarterback, but the Packers are a team built in such a way that they need Rodgers to be his superhuman self in order to win a Super Bowl. The Saints don't need their quarterback to rescue them, but if it ever comes to that, Brees can save them.

Questions about the other contenders 

The Saints have a Super Bowl-caliber offense and defense, but it's not like they're the only one. The Eagles aren't going anywhere, the Packers are always a threat with Rodgers, the Rams only got better a year after they saw a historic improvement, and the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins, Sheldon Richardson, and George Iloka. This is a deep conference. Any of those teams could win the NFC and it wouldn't be a surprise. 

But let's run through some of their flaws. We'll start with the Super Bowl champs. 

The Eagles, when healthy, have one of the best rosters in football. The only problem is, injuries are already mounting. Carson Wentz's status for Week 1 remains in doubt, as it always has been since he tore his ACL and LCL in December. Wentz, a quarterback who relied on his mobility and athleticism to create the magic that put the Eagles in playoff position, needs his knee to be fully operational if he's going to be able to recreate that magic from a year ago. It's not a given that he'll be able to do that so soon after his injury. 

And the Eagles can't rely on backup Nick Foles to do what he did a year ago. Foles, the best backup in football, is more than capable of going on hot streaks that would make J.R. Smith jealous, evidenced by his 27-touchdown, two-interception season back in 2013 and his Super Bowl MVP run from this past winter. But the Eagles can't expect Foles to do that again. There's a reason why the Eagles never got a crazy trade offer for Foles in the offseason. He's a good backup quarterback and a fringy starter, and if he's forced to fill in again for a substantial amount of time, the Eagles probably aren't journeying back to the Super Bowl.

Elsewhere, the Eagles also have left tackle Jason Peters coming back from a torn ACL and Alshon Jeffery is recovering from rotator cuff surgery. The Eagles are already beat up, with the injury to Wentz obviously the most important one to keep an eye on.

The case against the Vikings is interesting. Although they upgraded at quarterback by switching out Case Keenum for Kirk Cousins, there's actually reason to think that they might experience worse quarterback play in 2018 than they did in 2017. That's not to say that Keenum is a better quarterback than Cousins (he's not). It just means that Keenum played the season of a lifetime a year ago and Cousins might not be able to recreate those numbers (and Keenum likely wouldn't have been able to either, for the record). 

Again, this doesn't mean that Keenum is better than Cousins. It just means the Vikings journeyed all the way to the NFC title game in part because Keenum was the best quarterback in football by DVOA a season ago and there's a decent chance Cousins won't be able to do that this season because that's a very high bar to clear.

There's also the issue of their offensive line in that it's already suffering losses. Left guard Nick Easton is on IR. Center Pat Elflein is on the PUP list. Left tackle Mike Remmers is dealing with an ankle injury. The offensive line might be the one area that holds back the Vikings.

As for the Packers, it's all about Rodgers being forced to cover up their roster flaws. There's no denying that Rodgers is the best quarterback in the conference, but he doesn't get the kind of support that Brees gets. The Saints have put the better team around their Hall of Fame quarterback.

The Rams, assuming they eventually get Aaron Donald to report, likely offer the biggest challenge to the Saints. But if the two teams meet in the playoffs, it's going to be difficult to pick the team with Jared Goff at quarterback to beat the team with Brees at quarterback. That's not a knock on Goff. He's just not at Brees' level yet. And the difference between the overall talent of the Rams' roster compared to the Saints' roster isn't as substantial as the difference between the Saints and the Packers.

The NFL is a quarterback driven league. The Saints have one of the greatest to ever play the position, and he's not even necessarily the focal point of their offense. Defenses are allegedly the key to winning championships. The Saints finally have one of the better defenses in football. That's why they can win the NFC.

It's worth repeating: the Saints finished first in DVOA a year ago. So by one measure, they were the best team in football. And if not for a miracle Hail Mary, they might've finished as the best team in football by the only measure that really matters in the end. The good news for the Saints is that they're going to get another crack at the NFC in just a few weeks. And they've got the gameplan to win.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

Our Latest Stories