The New Orleans Saints organization and its players are enjoying their first few days off during their scheduled Bye Week, but as the old saying goes: “business is about to pick up”.
That’s because once the Black and Gold returns to action, they immediately will play games that not only will ultimately determine their fate in the NFC South Division; but also their eventual seeding within the National Football Conference when the NFL Playoffs arrive.
(7-1) New Orleans will first host their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, on November 10th. That contest will be the first of four straight divisional games for the Saints; who then after that will face the Buccaneers at Tampa Bay (November 17th), the Panthers at home in the Superdome (November 24th), and then the Falcons again at Atlanta on Thanksgiving Night (Thursday, November 29th).
However, the game which many fans as well as observers and analysts that cover the League are anticipating very highly and circling on the calendar, is the match-up between the Saints and the undefeated (7-0) San Francisco 49ers; who will visit the Superdome on Sunday, December 8th.
That’s expected to be a game in which the eventual winner very well could earn the head-to-head tie-breaker advantage over the other, once the teams are seeded for the playoffs.
Yet the 49ers will also face a tough 2nd half schedule of their own, and in essence making that game at the Superdome even more important to the team that emerges with a victory.
San Francisco plays a brutal 2nd half schedule which besides their game against the Saints, also includes several other contests that could ultimately determine their eventual status in the post-season.
The NFC West Division-leading 49ers will have two games against the (6-2) Seattle Seahawks in Week #10 and then again in the regular season finale in Week #17; and contests vs. (7-1) Green Bay in Week #12, (5-2) Baltimore in Week #13, and the (5-3) Los Angeles Rams in Week #16.
That said, the Saints additionally will keep a watchful eye on the team right behind them at the moment: the previously mentioned Green Bay Packers; who with only one loss like the Saints, lead their division (NFC North) and are a half-game behind the 49ers for the top spot in the conference.
Barring a complete collapse, Green Bay appears to the other team that besides the 49ers, are ready to battle the Black and Gold for ultimate supremacy within the conference.
The Packers, who at the moment would be the #3 overall playoff seed behind the top-seeded 49ers and #2 seed Saints, might just have the easiest schedule in the 2nd half of the season among the three teams.
Green Bay’s toughest games will be against the 49ers at San Francisco in Week 12, and then against the (6-2) Minnesota Vikings at Minneapolis in Week 16.
With the battle for NFC supremacy in mind, here’s a quick run-down of the current six teams qualifying for the conference playoffs (seeded from 1-to-6):
1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers were only (4-12) last season, and their undefeated record in the 1st half of the current season has come as a bit of a big surprise to many people.
But they have turned things completely around on the strength of a top-caliber defensive unit led by NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Bosa; and a top-rated running game on offense featuring RB Tevin Coleman.
Bottom line, San Francisco is a legitimate threat to win a Super Bowl themselves, making that game that they'll play against the Saints at the Superdome in Week 14 all the more critical.
2. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The NFC South Division-leading Saints impressively have put together 6 straight wins a row, five of which came while QB Drew Brees was out of the starting line-up with a torn thumb ligament that he initially suffered back in Week 2.
Yet thanks to great coaching, the consistent week-to-week stellar play of their now Top 5-caliber defensive unit, and the steady guidance of the offense by back-up QB Teddy Bridgewater; New Orleans has won every one of their games besides the only one that they lost when Brees was originally hurt.
Now Brees has returned to the line-up, and the team is poised and ready to make their run at achieving their ultimate goal, one which they are hoping finally will be accomplished early next February at Miami, Florida in Super Bowl LIV (54).
3. GREEN BAY PACKERS
Like the 49ers, Green Bay has definitely improved this season as well under 1st-year head coach Matt LaFleur, but they've also benefitted from a "soft" schedule in which they've nearly won all of their games in the 1st half of the season. The Packers' only loss in that time came at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, back in Week 4.
Their top priority at the moment is winning the NFC North Division, and they lead the Minnesota Vikings by one game; whom as mentioned they will face at Minneapolis in Week 16 in a contest that likely will crown a division champion.
However, the Packers and veteran QB Aaron Rodgers have their sights set on much higher goals; and that game they will play at San Francisco against the 49ers in Week 12, could have lasting repercussions when the post-season arrives in the first weekend of January.
4. DALLAS COWBOYS
Of the 6 teams that would make the NFC Playoffs, the (4-3) Cowboys have been the least impressive recently, with three of their losses having come in their past 4 games; including an embarrassing loss at the hands of the (1-6) New York Jets.
The Cowboys lead the NFC East Division, which arguably is the worst division in all of Pro Football at the moment. The Cowboys lead the (4-4) Philadelphia Eagles by a half-game, but have beaten Philly head-to-to head once already and will face the Eagles in a rematch at Philadelphia in Week 16.
Meaning that the division championship in the NFC East is still "''up for grabs", and Dallas will first have to focus all of their efforts on earning the #4 seed as the lowest-seeded division winner. The Cowboys have Super Bowl aspirations like everyone else, but that's a bigger goal that they haven't achieved in nearly 25 years (back in 1996).
5. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
The (6-2) Seahawks (who the Saints have already beaten head-to-head in their victory over Seattle back in Week #3) are the 2nd place team behind the 49ers in the NFC West Division, and would make the playoffs as the NFC's top Wild Card team. They've been largely successful on the shoulders of the outstanding overall performance in the season's 1st half by veteran QB Russell Wilson, who many observers feel is having an MVP-caliber season.
With the always-dangerous Wilson at the helm deftly guiding the Seahawks offense, Seattle has become much more prolific at passing the football than they have been in previous seasons. That coupled with their commitment to the running game and a bend-but-don't-break defensive unit, keeps them very much in the hunt to make the playoffs.
But Seattle still has to get there first, and they face an upcoming stretch of games in the 2nd half of the season that might be the toughest out of all the teams that would qualify for the post-season. The Seahawks face an entire gauntlet of scheduled upcoming games that ultimately will determine their playoff fate: the 49ers twice, and contests against the Eagles, Vikings, Rams, and the Panthers.
6. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Last but not least, (6-2) Minnesota would be the second of the two NFC Wild Card teams and would qualify as the final #6 seed. The Vikings have followed their typical formula for success for the better part of the season. This comes from a strong running game led by superstar RB Dalvin Cook and an always-tough defensive unit overseen by head coach Mike Zimmer.
Yet in recent weeks, the Vikings similarly like the Seahawks have suddenly become proficient at throwing the football. Much-maligned and often-criticized QB Kirk Cousins has gotten 'hot' in Minnesota's last 4 games and has posted an NFL-best 137.1 passer rating along with 10 TD passes and only 1 interception for 1,281 yards.
The Vikings trail Green Bay by one game in the NFC North, but they still have an outside chance to beat out the Packers and win the division title; and all three of their remaining division games are at home at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. But their primary focus first is qualifying for the playoffs, and that requires them to do well overall in their next upcoming 4 games: three of which will take place on the road, at Kansas City, at Seattle, and at Dallas.