The New Orleans Saints begin their 2020 season Sunday September 13 in the Superdome against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that sounds weird doesn't it?). After last year’s division title and loss in the Wild Card round to the Vikings, expectations in the Big Easy are high. As quarterback Drew Brees enters his age-41(!) season, it’s now or never for the Saints to bring home another Super Bowl title.
The leading projection systems are in line with fan expectations. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects New Orleans to go 10-6 with a 82.4% chance to make the playoffs. The Saints have the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl (12.9%) behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens. Football Outsides gives the Saints the best chance of winning Super Bowl LIV at 15.4%.
Rather than do a traditional preview, let’s look at the big questions confronting the Saints this season. The answers will determine whether New Orleans will have a socially distanced parade (is that a thing?) or finally close the chapter on the Brees era with another season of disappointment.
Can Brees remain Brees for one more year?
At age 40, Brees continues to set records. He led the NFL in completion percentage last year--74.3% just a tenth of a percentage short of his career and NFL record of 74.4% set in 2018. His passing yardage was down significantly, from 3,992 to 2,979. He threw only 27 TDs compared to 32 in 2018. Yet Brees threw 4 interceptions. The Saints still have plenty of offensive talent in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. At this point, there's little reason to bet against Brees continuing to be his old self.
The question facing the Saints is is this the beginning of the end? The aging curve for 41 year old quarterbacks isn’t pretty. Remember what happened to Peyton Manning in Denver or Brett Favre in Minnesota? But even a diminished Brees is still better than most other quarterbacks in the NFL. In other words, who knows how Brees will play against the ageless Brady and the Bucs, but the Saints' Super Bowl hopes ride on #9.
How Good is the Defense?
After years of languishing at the bottom of the league in team defense thanks to a series on inept coordinators and bad drafting, the Saints defense has gotten good again. In 2019, they finished 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA after finishing 11th in 2018. The unspoken rule of the Saints in the Brees era is that the team goes as far as the defense. With even a league average defense, the Saints are Super Bowl contenders as long as Brees is under center and Sean Payton is calling the plays.
Over the last few years, New Orleans has invested significant draft capital on defense including first round picks on Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport and second round picks on Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell.
Defensive performance, however, varies significantly from season to season. Last season the Saints finishing 17th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. But injury luck also doesn’t hold over from season to season. The Saints defense may look good on paper, but if Lattimore or star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan miss time, then it will be difficult for the Saints to replicate their defensive success from past years.
Can the Saints keep winning close games?
In 2019, New Orleans went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or less. Performance in one score games varies from year to year because it depends on just a handful of plays to break one way or another.
Against Houston in Week 1, Will Lutz hit a 58 yard field goal with 2 seconds left in the game to win the game for the Saints 30-28. Against Dallas in Week 4, the Saints got only 4 field goals against the Cowboys. A touchdown on either side would have determined the game. This season, those plays might not go the Saints way.
Last season, the Saints went 13-3, but lost in the Wild Card round to the Vikings. In order to reach that point, a lot had to go right for New Orleans—a good defense, health, and luck mostly—and New Orleans will need those to happen again to give Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the people of the Crescent City their second Super Bowl title.