But! cry the vocal advocates of misery and disappointment from somewhere in the vicinity of Saints Twitter. But! We were 9-2 and should have had a bye and we screwed it up by being losers and if you disagree then you love mediocrity, mediocrity lover!
Except no, not really. The thing about football, the complex matchup-oriented game that it is, is that sometimes success or failure is dictated to you by the conditions you find yourself in. The word conditions here, by the way, has little to do with how much it rains, or how many of your games happen outside–though it means that too, a little bit. It has much more to do with the quality of the schedule you end up facing.
Here’s a thing you should know: The 2013 Saints faced the toughest schedule of any team Sean Payton has ever coached. But if you follow B&G you know that by now. So let’s slice the numbers a few different ways.
The Tough Three Months
Early on, there was much talk of the Saints’ month-long hell stretch, the one that would (and did) determine the team’s playoff fortunes. This, we all figured, would be the part of the season that began on November 10 against Dallas and ended on December 2 in Seattle. The Saints went 3-1 in those four weeks, but the problem is the actual hell stretch wasn’t a month long. It was more like three months long.
It began in week three, after the Saints had beaten Atlanta and Tampa teams that ended up being terrible. It began with Arizona, a team we didn’t know was pretty good, even then.1 It ended in week 16, when the Saints went on the road to face Carolina.
In that time–three months to the day, September 22 to December 22–the Saints faced ten opponents who finished .500 or better. Nine of those teams are either in the playoffs now or were in playoff contention in week 17. Four of the games came against teams that eventually earned a bye in either conference. The Saints easily won one of those games, and it took final-seconds miracle drives to beat the Saints in two of the others.
2011 Was Easy
I’ll pause to give Saints fans who gird themselves with appeals to high expectations a chance to scoff.
Having done so, let’s contrast the above to 2011, when the Saints went 13-3 and gave WWL radio guys the ability to claim that year’s team was the best of the Sean Payton era, including the 2009 Super Bowl champions.2
In 2011, between October 2 and November 6, the Saints played six straight teams that finished the season with ten or more losses…and lost two of those games. In all, half the games the 2011 Saints played featured opponents that lost at least ten games. Basically: the 2011 team played about as many games against some of the league’s ten worst teams as the 2013 team played against the league’s best.
What’s the Point?
The point of all this is twofold: First, it’s a defense of a 2013 Saints team that many fans write off as underwhelming. Yes, failing to win the division and score a bye is disappointing, but the Saints’ inability to do so reflects a schedule that made it play three games against two of the league’s best teams on the road, which did the same with a pair of teams of the sort that have historically given Sean Payton’s squads trouble, and so on.
In fact, the difference between 2013′s 11-5 and 2011′s 13-3 is almost entirely a product of the teams’ respective schedules.
Second, it’s supposed to give us an idea of what we can expect in the playoffs. Does this defense of the 2013 Saints mean they’re, like, Super Bowl bound? Probably not. Even with a win over Philadelphia that would play as narrative-changing the Saints would have to beat Seattle, and Seattle, though its schedule was not as difficult as New Orleans’, thanks to a handful of games against truly awful teams the likes of which the Saints rarely faced this season, still dispatched good opponents with frequency.
Whatever you want to think, Seattle remains the NFC’s clear favorite, with a resume fairly similar to the one the Saints produced in 2009, even if the Seahawks arrived at that point with a far different sense of style.
And, of course, there’s a dangerous but beatable Philadelphia team to get past first, an Eagles team that, the stories say, finished a hot 7-1 after a cold 3-5 start. Those stories will generally leave out the fact that the 3-5 start included losses to the only three playoff teams it faced3, and that the 7-1 finish included six wins over teams finishing .500 or worse. That’s not to say the Saints will easily dispatch the Eagles, but they certainly could, and so they have a realistic opportunity to eliminate the They’ve Never Won a Road Playoff Game story from Internet archives of the future.
In 2013, we just might have to choke on our frustrations. No playoff team has faced a harder road to this point of the NFL season–and no team now faces a more difficult road to New Jersey. Sometimes, this is just how things work out.
But. What if…?