A position-by-position breakdown of the Arizona-New Orleans divisional-round matchup on Saturday.
Drew Brees had arguably the top season of any quarterback in the NFL. His accuracy and efficiency allow him to run the Saints' elaborate offense without a hitch. He finds open receivers better than anyone and avoids taking sacks. His biggest contribution is his leadership. No player may galvanize his teammates more than Brees.
New Orleans has the sixth-ranked rushing offense in the NFL, but faded some down the stretch. The Saints' three-headed backfield of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush could cause Arizona problems, especially Thomas. He is very shifty and can elude tacklers at the line of scrimmage then deliver contact to incoming safeties and linebackers.
The Saints balance out Arizona's star power with their wealth of targets: Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meacham, Lance Moore, Jeremy Shockey and Bush. The play-action game could be very effective in luring the Cards' aggressive safeties to the line of scrimmage. Meacham and Shockey, whose bad toe should be better, could be factors.
This is the unheralded unit of the Saints, who boasted the league's No. 1 offense. RT Jon Stinchcomb is a Pro Bowler and RG Jahri Evans is very good. Evans and center Jonathan Goodwin, a very underrated player, will have their hands full with Pro Bowl DT Darnell Dockett. The Saints got beat up a little by physical fronts down the stretch.
The loss of Charles Grant at LDE hurts, especially when it comes to pass pressure. Bobby McCray will replace him, so Arizona will probably try to run in his direction. Will Smith is a big-time player at right end but he will draw a lot of attention. NT Sedrick Ellis is a difference-maker and he is going to have to collapse the pocket to stuff the run and get Warner on the move.
MLB Jonathan Vilma hasn't received as much credit as he deserves for making the plays he's had to make because of injuries and deficiencies at defensive tackle. He's often been left unprotected and has manned up. OLB Scott Fujita has battled through injuries and Scott Shanle missed the final two regular-season games with a concussion.
The good news is that regular starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter should finally be healthy -- and the timing couldn't be better. Greer is a very good cover corner, who allows for more aggressive schemes to be called because he's got things handled. Safety Darren Sharper will play a lot of center field because of Arizona's crossing routes that are difficult to cover.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who the team was vilified for taking with one of its four draft picks last April, has been very solid in helping put opponents in poor field position. Courtney Roby is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in the league.
Sean Payton is viewed as the best play-caller in the business. He's had a few weeks to prepare and will have his team set to come out of the gate quickly. Payton has to find a way to get the team to regain its swagger after dropping three straight games to end the season. He likely will ride them hard in practice to get their attention, but try not to let the team get too tight.
No team could have used a bye more. New Orleans is healthy and should be hungry after a late-season slide. The home-field advantage is huge because this team truly plays for its city and the fans reciprocate in kind. Other than when it lost to Dallas, New Orleans has fared well against 3-4 defenses, like the Cardinals play. The play of the Saints' defense will determine if they move on.
Kurt Warner is 9-3 in his postseason career with a Super Bowl victory and three total trips to the Super Bowl. He's been in every type of big-game scenario and, as his record states, he's performed well. He is coming off a dazzling five-TD game against Green Bay and will be facing an opportunistic, but vulnerable, Saints secondary.
Beanie Wells was almost drafted by the Saints, who liked his ability to run between the tackles then explode in the open field. New Orleans' run defense is shaky and if Arizona can use Wells, who had 91 yards vs. Green Bay, and Tim Hightower to provide some offensive balance, the Cardinals passing game could be very dangerous -- as if it wasn't already.
To think the Cardinals had the type of day they did against Green Bay last week without Anquan Boldin (ankle, knee) makes it seem scary what type of day they could have against the Saints with him. Boldin's status is still iffy but the Cards clearly have the player, Steve Breaston, to fill in. Larry Fitzgerald has advantages all over the field and could be Warner's main target.
Warner got off 33 passes against Green Bay's noted pass-rushing defense last week and got sacked just once. The Saints will likely dial up some exotic blitzes that could challenge the Cardinals. LT Jeremy Bridges has played well stepping in as the starter late in the season. He will have his hands full with DE Will Smith.
Dockett is one of the NFL's fiercest and most athletic defensive linemen. His combination of strength and power will cause the Saints problems. New Orleans struggled with Dallas DT Jay Ratliff, who is very similar to Dockett. Nose tackles Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson are playing well and end Calais Campbell is emerging.
It's amazing how it takes until the postseason for us to take note of Arizona's highly athletic four-man group. ILB Karlos Dansby is a tackling machine and OLBs Clark Haggans, Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry (situational pass rusher), really apply pressure. This group is vulnerable in coverage, though, and will be stressed throughout the game in that regard.
Arizona's secondary had a rough day against Green Bay but it is still a very strong unit. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had six interceptions during the season and one last week. CB Bryant McFadden is targeted much more, as is nickel back Michael Adams. Safeties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson are big hitters that can be exploited in coverage.
Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers was one of the most sure-things in the regular season. However, his miss at the end of regulation vs. Green Bay is the type of faux pas that haunts kickers. He should bounce back. Breaston is a dangerous punt returner and LaRod Stephens-Howling is an explosive kickoff return specialist.
Ken Whisenhunt's creative pass packages that forced the Packers out of their defensive tendencies were brilliant. So was his play-calling. Whisenhunt is one of the smartest coaches in the game. For the second straight year he's managed to get his team through a wild-card game and the chess match between these head coaches should be intriguing.
The Cardinals should be riding a wave of momentum following the thrilling wild-card victory, but a short week after that taxing overtime game could work against them. Arizona has an extra rallying point since this could be Warner's last rodeo. This is as dangerous as a team as there is because it's shown it can play with a lead or from behind. The Cardinals can't lose their focus against the Saints because it will prove costly.