Arena: Saints need maturity to rebound next season

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In all my years as a Saints fan, I’m not sure I’ve ever rooted for them to outright lose a game. Sunday, that changed, however: not out of spite, but out of situation.

A loss meant the difference of up to eight draft spots; likewise, a Tampa Bay win would have knocked the Buccaneers out of the No. 1 overall draft spot, and with it, a potential decade-plus of the Saints defense chasing around a headache named “Marcus Mariota.” Of course, if it turned out the Saints were to just throttle the sad sack Bucs, it wouldn’t have been my first choice, but at least it would have been something of a cathartic end to a frustrating season.

Naturally, the Saints gave us the worst of both worlds: get thumped for as long as the Bucs felt like playing, then come through in the “clutch” for a three-point win over a slew of Tampa backups in the fourth quarter. WHO DAT.

I was wrong two weeks ago in my prediction of the final Saints outcome: they did not beat Atlanta and lose to Tampa Bay, but vice versa. My overall assessment of this Saints team remains the same, however: this was an immature team, bereft of a lot of the veteran leadership of years past. That, ultimately, was the true cost of the salary cap shedding this team has had to do over the past few seasons. When Sean Payton took over this operation in 2006, he made a point to “change the culture” in the Saints’ locker room. He brought in quality people who were as sound of mind as they were of body. He brought in committed veterans.

Often, with youth comes that immaturity referenced earlier. This team had holes, but also had plenty of talent — underachieving talent, in many cases, primarily on the defensive line.

The cupboard is not bare, and it would be foolish to dismiss New Orleans as a real factor next season. The Saints lost a number of “coinflip” type games early this season when the team was healthy. A number of those injured players, like Jairus Byrd, Terron Armstead and Brandon Cooks will be back, and Jimmy Graham and Keenan Lewis will be back to 100 percent. We can also likely rest assured that while Drew Brees will throw interceptions, 90 percent of them won’t be in backbreaking situations, as they seemed to be this season.

But there is clearly work to be done and cleaning up to do. The defense, primarily its backfield, needs another overhaul. Offensively, the line needs fortifying.

Sean Payton did a heck of a cleanup job in 2006. We’ll see if he’s up to the task again in 2015.

NFL Playoffs: This is an uninspiring slate of wildcard weekend teams, to say the least.

Carolina went winless in nine straight games at one point (division champs!!!). Pittsburgh was a sleeper, but lost arguably its best player in Le’Veon Bell to injury Sunday and he may miss this week’s clash with Baltimore. Indianapolis is slumping and hasn’t been the same since Ahmad Bradshaw went down. Detroit’s best defensive player pulled an idiot move Sunday and won’t play this weekend because of it. Arizona’s “B” team now starts on offense due to injuries. An already shaky Andy Dalton may not have A.J. Green this weekend.

Even so, the games must be played! My predictions: Dallas should handle Detroit, now depleted defensively. Even disregarding Ndamukong Suh’s suspension, Matt Stafford has never led the Lions to a road victory over a team with a winning record. For those waiting to laugh at a Dallas chokejob, it’ll probably be at least one more week.

I’ll take Baltimore in an upset win over Pittsburgh, assuming Bell sits. The Steelers defense is in pretty rough shape, and Baltimore has the receivers and running game to take advantage.

Carolina is the first team with a losing record to host a playoff game since Seattle hosted New Orleans in 2010. As we remember, Seattle won that one. So too should Carolina, with Arizona pressed into starting Ryan Lindley on the road against a reenergized Panthers team that laid its two biggest division rivals to waste within the past month.

Finally, I think the Bengals may be able to pull an upset in Indianapolis, with or without A.J. Green. The Colts struggle in both rushing offense and defense, and the Bengals boast an elite pass defense. I don’t look forward to a week’s worth of Skip Bayless-like questioning of Andrew Luck’s ability to win in the postseason — but I do think it’s coming.