After drubbing the Bucs 41-0, I'm anxious to see the Saints play another team fighting for their playoff lives, this time on the road. Was the Bucs game an abberation of the 2012 season or have the Saints truly turned a corner? The Saints need to win out and need a massive amount of help for the postseason to work out, and well, it ain't happening. But you have to feel better going into 2013 if the Saints close this thing out strong. Here's five things I'll be looking for in this game.
1. Defensive confirmation.
Shutting out the Bucs based on what we saw all season was incredible, a shock to all of us. But can the Saints build off that performance? The degree of difficulty goes up a bit in this one because Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Tony Romo represent better weapons than anything Tampa has offensively. If this defense can go on the road and give us another good showing I'll start to think Spagnuolo has turned a corner. We know what the offense can give us when it's firing on all cylinders, but if we can feel even close to half that confident about the defense it's a game changer for 2013.
2. How do the youngsters in the defensive backfield play?
Expanding on #1 with players specifically, I'm incredibly impressed with what Elbert Mack, Rafael Bush and Isa Abdul-Quddus have shown. This is yet another opportunity for these three to show they not only belong on the 2013 roster, but that they deserve prominent roles. As I mentioned, though, the degree of difficulty goes up this week. There is a good chance these youngsters could get embarrassed a bit. On the flipside, if they confirm the Tampa game with another performance like that, it really puts Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and the backup corners on notice that the Saints have some rising young players that may deserve a starting spot. At this point we're all about talent evaluation with these final two games being "glorified preseason", so the performance of guys we know less means more to me than performance of the vets. I'd love to see Akiem Hicks and Tyrunn Walker play a good bit too.
3. Does Thomas Morstead maintain his record advantage in net yards punting?
Thomas Morstead is shooting for a single season NFL record in average net yards punting. The record is 43.99 net yards per punt, and Morstead currently averages far better at 44.7 with two games to go. So he's got a little breathing room to spare, but he'll need at least two average games to close out the season to officially get the record.
4. Can the defense avoid being the worst in NFL history?
Another record in play that is not a good one is most yards given up by a team in a single season. The Saints are currently on pace to be the worst defense in NFL history, but it's not impossible they could avoid that feat. They need to give up less than 363 yards per contest over their last two. So if they could give up 350 yards or less in this one that would really go a long way.
5. How this game affects the Sean Payton situation?
The Sean Payton contract situation is at the forefront right now anyway, but the fact that the Saints play the Cowboys in Dallas seems to heighten the awareness of the topic even more. I'm assuming the broadcast will reference this quite a bit. Payton is a guy that Jerry Jones will almost without question make a very convincing run at if Dallas is looking for a new coach. The odds of them looking for a new coach diminish if they beat the Saints and make the playoffs. If the Saints win, ironically, it increased the odds the Cowboys would fire Jason Garrett and make a run at Payton. I'll stop short of saying we should root for the Saints to lose, but if it happens, between the improved draft pick and the Payton scenario I mentioned I wouldn't exactly be broken hearted.