Are The Saints A Good Longshot Bet In The NFC South

The New Orleans Saints have finished with a 7-9 record in three of the last four years and have been usurped by the Carolina Panthers as the team to beat in the NFC South. This is in spite of Drew Brees continuing to play at a high level. If you believe Brees and head coach Sean Payton can get it turned around, the financial rewards are out there - New Orleans gets solid 15-2 odds just to win the division. But can this team do it?

It has to start with defense. The Saints were the worst D in the NFL last year, equally incompetent in defending both the run and the pass and not particularly adept at forcing turnovers. The problems started up front and that's where New Orleans went in the draft. They picked defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the first round. They also added help in defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

There's reason to be hopeful of improvement in the secondary. Brandon Browner was a huge weak link at corner and he's gone. The other starters, from Delvin Breaux to Kenny Vacarro and Jarius Byrd all have shown growth. By no means is this defense on the verge of turning into the Legion of Boom, but they could upgrade from atrocious to merely subpar.

That puts the burden back where it's been in New Orleans for the last decade and it's with Brees and the offense. The veteran quarterback played at an MVP-level last season. He was second in completion percentage (68%), while still ranking sixth in yards-per-attempt (7.8). And even though interceptions have been a Brees bugaboo over the course of his career, he was only intercepted on 1.5% of his passes in 2015. To put that in perspective, the only regular starting quarterbacks more careful with the football were Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

Brees has benefited from an offensive line that is drastically better, thanks in part to the trade that sent Jimmy Graham to Seattle in exchange for center Max Unger. The Saints bet that with proper protection Brees could make other receivers look good and they won that bet. The offense ranked 8th in the NFL in points scored.

So can New Orleans wrest control of the NFC South away from Carolina, who has won it each of the last three years? Admittedly a big part of this involves something beyond control of the Saints and it would be the Panthers coming back to the pack a bit. It's not realistic to expect the New Orleans defense to make enough improvement to play at a Super Bowl level. But the track record of teams that lose the Super Bowl is that they do come back to the pack.

That makes it possible the NFC South could be a wide-open affair and the Saints would have the best combination of head coach and quarterback among any of the four teams. If Mark Ingram stayed healthy and provided a running game component to go with Brees, New Orleans would be in great position...and have a 15-2 price tag to boot.