At this point in the NFL season it’s not too early to ask if the New Orleans Saints can run the table.
Yes, the Saints. One of two undefeated teams in the league, they’ve only played eight games and have eight more contests to go. But look at the schedule: Their upcoming opponents include four games against the league’s lesser lights. The schedule includes road games against the Carolina Panthers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Redskins. Barring a letdown in any of those matchups, there are only three games standing between the Saints and a perfect regular-season record—the only remaining Saints opponents with a winning record: The New England Patriots on Nov. 30; a road trip to Atlanta on Dec. 13 to take on the Falcons before facing the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 19.
It isn’t as if the Saints haven’t played some tough opposition already; they’ve faced some of the better defenses with frightening results. They put up 48 points on Philadelphia (in Philly no less!), 48 on the New York Giants and 24 on the New York Jets. And a few weeks ago, they rallied from a 24-3 deficit on the road to beat the Miami Dolphins 46-34.
Everyone knew that the Saints had a fearsome offense, but this season the defense has done its part, too. The Saints D ranks fourth in the Football Outsiders ratings, which account for context like down and distance and score in assessing performance. All tolled, the Saints have a behemoth of an offense, averaging 38 points a game, which if carried out for a full season would shatter the NFL record.
The other undefeated team, the Indianapolis Colts, has a monster slate ahead: Six of their remaining nine games are against teams with winning records, and two of the other three are divisional rivals. If the Colts make it to Christmas undefeated, then there’s a conversation to be had about running the table, but not until then. The Saints are in that conversation right now.
The fate of the last team to go 16-0, the 2007 New England Patriots, who reached the Super Bowl and lost to the Giants 17-14, has taken some of the luster off the Saints’ potential run, but this much is key: The Saints’ powerhouse season so far and easy future schedule should ensure them home field advantage through the conference championship games. Warm weather teams have an abysmal record in playoff games held in the wintry weather up North.
The rise of the Saints points out an interesting new trend toward stratification. The league itself is as unpredictable as ever. Few forecast the Tennessee Titans and the Carolina Panthers would collapse this year, for instance, and fewer thought that the Falcons and Dolphins would rise last season. But the extremes—the gap between the rich and poor, so to speak—of the seasons have grown. Last year, the Detroit Lions went winless, and the year before was the Patriots’ undefeated season. Although some bad teams like the Oakland Raiders (a team that is fast turning into the NFL’s equivalent of the Isiah Thomas era New York Knicks) and Cleveland Browns suffer from horrid management, it seems that some others start playing for draft position sooner than they did before.
So we’re left with more teams chasing historic marks, both good and bad (the Lions 0-16 mark last season)—and more muddle in between. It means the Saints are in position to think about an undefeated season, but next year at this mark, some other team should be able to entertain similar thoughts.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.