BAYHAM: The Prodigal Team Returns!

Slaughter the boeuf gras!

Clothe Kenny Stills in the finest robe…and get him a decent haircut while you’re at it.

Return to Marques Colston his Super Bowl ring!

Our season that was once lost has been found as the prodigal team has returned!

Well, kind of.

After dropping three straight games in the Superdome the seemingly doomed New Orleans Saints once again did the unthinkable but in a good way for once, stumbling into Pittsburgh and beating their only AFC North opponent in the 2014 season.

And ironically enough, the game played out quite the opposite how most Saints’ losses have gone this season.

This time it was New Orleans dominating the game and it was Pittsburgh choking on key drives, settling on field goals and posting late garbage points in a futile last ditch effort to rally back from a big deficit.

While the scoreboard showed the Saints had triumphed by a field goal, the truth is the game wasn’t that close come the third quarter.

And the greatest wonder of all, the Saints did so without the direct contributions from their second most important player: tight end Jimmy Graham. Yes, the Pro Bowler was on the field and running routes, yet the Pittsburgh secondary had him contained to a point he wasn’t a viable target for quarterback Drew Brees.

It was Jimmy Graham playing Reggie Bush as the big tight end did free up other receiving options for Brees. Number Nine’s touchdown passes were caught by Colston, Stills (who is returning to his impressive rookie season form), the team’s lower profile tight end Ben Watson, habitually hurt fullback Erik Lorig and roster bubble resident Nick Toon, who executed a nifty spin move after contact to crash on to the periphery of the end zone to get his first ever pro touchdown.

And while a 5-7 record is not the mark of excellence, it is the mark of “good enough”. In almost any normal scenario that record would make a postseason appearance highly improbable, but the NFC South/Suck is a dumpster fire of a division that is so bad that even the cellar dwelling two-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers can still make the playoffs as of the start of week 13. However a win by either the Saints or the Falcons or a loss by Tampa on Sunday would end that prolonged farce.

The 3-8-1 Carolina Panthers that come into the Superdome this Sunday haven’t won a game since October. A loss to the Saints would not close their narrow playoff window because of the tie against Cincinnati, though they would need the Saints to drop their remaining games and Atlanta to lose three out of their next four games. Even if the Panthers ran the table starting Sunday, which is possible as they have the easiest schedule remaining of the NFC South contenders, they need a lot of help to become only the second NFL team to have won a division with a losing record.

The real battle for the division is between the Saints and the Falcons. The big consequence for the Saints if they go down to Carolina is losing the key division game tiebreaker with Atlanta. The Falcons are now 4-0 in the NFC South, closing the season at New Orleans in Week 16 and at home against the Panthers. If the Saints fall to the Panthers, Atlanta could lose to the Saints and still win the division if they tie New Orleans in overall record if the Falcons win at home in the season finale. At 5-4, the Falcons also have a better conference record than New Orleans.

While Atlanta holds the head-to-head, division and conference tie-breakers over the Saints, the Falcons also have the tougher schedule.

The Falcons fly into chilly Lambeau Field to face the hot Green Bay Packers and then host a tough Steelers team in a division that is the complete opposite of the NFC South. Not only do all four teams in the AFC North have a winning record, but Pittsburgh is in a three way tie for second place and, before factoring into the post-season tiebreakers, is in a six-way tie for the AFC’s second wild card spot. Odds are the Steelers will still be playing for something when they come to the ATL in two weeks.

If the Falcons drop the next two games and the Saints beat the Panthers at home and then pick up a road win against the struggling Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Monday Night Football, the Black and Gold could conceivably claim the division against the Falcons in the Superdome with a week to spare.



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