Say what you will about the NFC South, but things are shaping up nicely for the 5-7 New Orleans Saints. Just look at their remaining schedule:
Those opponents have a combined record of 15-32-1. Consequently, the Saints easily could win out and finish the season with a respectable record of 9-7 -- a mark in the same vein as two playoff teams from last season (the 9-7 Chargers and 8-7-1 Packers). In fact, there have been five playoff teams in the last three campaigns that finished the regular season at 9-7 or worse. Of those five teams, three of them won their first-round matchups -- and the 2011 Giants (9-7) went on to win the Super Bowl.
If -- and more like when -- the Saints secure their spot in the postseason, they too are poised to enjoy playoff success.
First, let's take a closer look at New Orleans' seven losses. Only one came against a team that currently holds a losing record: the Week 1 defeat in Atlanta. And considering that was a rivalry game, you can toss the records right out the window. The other six losses came against teams that all have at least seven wins and share a combined record of 45-26-1.
More importantly, let's look at New Orleans' wins. The Saints not only beat arguably the best team in the NFL right now, the Packers, but they destroyed them, 44-23, in Week 8. They forced three turnovers, including two Aaron Rodgers interceptions, ending his streak of 213 straight attempts without a pick. In turn, Drew Brees threw three touchdown passes against no interceptions. The Saints also racked up 193 rushing yards, as Mark Ingram led the charge with a career-high 172 yards on 24 carries (a healthy 7.2 yards a pop). New Orleans' defense logged four sacks (tied for the team's highest total of the season), while limiting the Packers to just 89 rushing yards. But of course, the Saints were at home. And the caveat at the time was that they couldn't duplicate such a performance on the road.
Yesterday, the Saints earned their second signature win, but most crucially, their first such win away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans beat Pittsburgh, 35-32 -- but a last-play touchdown and two-point conversion by the Steelers made the game appear much closer than it actually was. The 35-point effort was the Saints' highest road scoring total since Week 11 of the 2012 season. Brees threw five touchdown passes for the ninth time in his career -- and for the seventh time without a single interception, the most in NFL history. More impressively, he did it without Jimmy Graham registering a single reception. Ingram ran for 122 yards, his fourth 100-yard game this season. Even better: After surrendering 215 rushing yards to the Ravens last week and 71 to Le'Veon Bell in the first quarter alone on Sunday, the Saints' defense clamped down and gave up just 103 for the game. All the while still forcing Ben Roethlisberger to throw two interceptions.
So, what does this mean? Not only is Drew Brees capable of beating Aaron Rodgers in a shootout -- he already has. The Saints have now won back-to-back road games for the first time since Week 5 of last season. And with a powder-puff schedule in December, New Orleans has the opportunity to get hot at just the right time.
Given those three factors, the Saints are just as likely as any NFC team to finish their season at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.