Like the Colts, the Saints won their first 13 games of the regular season and there were discussions in many circles that they might go undefeated should they decide to play their starters and if they could escape a dangerous Dallas team at home in Week 15.
Unlike the Colts, they lost that week, then proceeded to drop their next two games against division foes — including the woeful Buccaneers in Week 16 — and went into the postseason losing three straight and finishing 13-3.
In spite of how it finished, the regular season was full of promise, blowout victories, and wild success for New Orleans. They opened 2009 by crushing the Lions 45-27, then easily dispatching eventual NFC sixth seed Philadelphia 48-22.
They then got off to a roaring non-conference start by crushing Buffalo and the New York Jets by a combined 51-17 tally before heading into their bye week at 4-0. They came out of the off week firing, dispatching the New York Giants 48-27 and began to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in a wide open NFC playoff race.
They sputtered the next few weeks, needing some last-minute heroics to defeat the Dolphins and squeaking by the Falcons, Panthers, and Rams — in relative terms — 35-27, 30-20, and 28-23, respectively. Though they were now 9-0 and nearly assured to win the division and secure a playoff spot, some critics were not appeased by their 38-7 thrashing of Tampa in Week 11, and pointed to a Monday night contest with perennial powerhouse New England as the true test of the mettle of this team.
They responded by blowing the Patriots off the Superdome's turf, 38-17, which led to rampant speculation that this team might actually be for real.
The Saints gave the critics fodder by sneaking by Washington and Atlanta in successive weeks before losing that critical game against Dallas at home in Week 15, then posting a second consecutive home defeat against Tampa in Week 16. With their playoff seed secured, they didn't try as hard as many thought they should have in their season finale against Carolina and they headed into the playoff bye on a three-game skid.
Throughout the course of the 2009 campaign, New Orleans was characterized by an explosive offense led by Drew Brees that finished first in scoring, first in passing, first in total offense, and sixth in rushing, as well as an opportunistic defense that was revitalized by new coordinator Gregg Williams and proved that the offense wasn't the only unit that could score.
At one point in the season, the Saints defense had scored more touchdowns than the Cleveland offense. Though their rankings on defense were pedestrian — 20th in scoring defense, 25th in total defense, 26th in pass defense, and 21st in run defense — they always seemed capable of breaking a team down, stopping an opponent from keeping up with their high-flying offense, and forcing the critical turnover that broke the game wide open.
Heading into the postseason, though, there were serious questions as to whether the offense could rediscover their rhythm — they scored only 44 points in their last three games of the regular season — and whether or not their defense had begun to show their age and lack of big name talent. New Orleans answered most of those questions with a dominant 45-14 performance against the Arizona Cardinals in the Divisional round.
They held a potent Cardinals offense — granted, one that was without Kurt Warner for much of the game — to 14 points and were able to handle and exploit the pressure-packed Arizona defense for 45 points.
In the NFC Championship game, they were able to match the Minnesota Vikings score-for-score during regulation and their defense stepped up on numerous occasions, forcing five turnovers. They pulled out a victory in overtime despite being outgained 475-185, which speaks to their resilience and the timely bounces and opportunities that they have been able to seize all season.
The biggest question surrounding this team throughout the course of the regular season and playoffs in 2009 has been their consistency. There is no doubt that they are a talented, well coached squad that has enormous potential on both sides of the ball. The issue is that they have been hot-and-cold at various times during their run to the Super Bowl. This is where the consistency and efficiency of the Colts could prove to be detrimental. Indianapolis has a very high floor and a relatively low ceiling when it comes to their performances on game day.
If New Orleans is firing on all cylinders when kickoff time comes, it will be very difficult for the Colts to keep pace. They have proven to be up to whatever a particular situation demands thus far, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will wilt on the game's biggest stage if the Saints get off to a hot start and keep applying pressure. That has been the formula for success so far for New Orleans this season, so it is up to Indianapolis to make sure that the equation is unbalanced in Super Bowl XLIV.
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