Watching the NFL Divisional Playoffs

One of the more intriguing storylines leading up to this weekend’s divisional playoffs is the re-signing of Deuce McCallister to the New Orleans Saints.

This old friend came back to a team that drafted him in 2001 out of Mississippi and a squad he led into their last playoff appearance three years ago when he rushed for over 1500 yards in 2006.  In that playoff, McAllister led the Saints in rushing and scored a touchdown to help the team defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round.

Upon signing the oft-injured running back, the Saints immediately declared that he would lead the team onto the field and  be an honorary captain against the Arizona Cardinals later today when the teams play in the NFC Divisional Round at the Superdome in New Orleans.

It appears that will be all McAllister will do, barring some horrific injuries to the Saints running back corps, which consists of leading rusher and newly healthy Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell.  All three have seen significant playing time this season.  Even the fourth running back on the roster, Lynell Hamilton, has looked impressive in limited time when injuries hampered the options Head Coach Sean Payton had in the backfield.

So why make the move?  Some point to a sentimental effort to have McAllister be a part of the playoff roster, reminiscent of a team who hadn’t been there in a while and wanted to honor the beat-up veteran with a spot on the active roster.  However, this is not that kind of team.  They were in the playoffs just three seasons ago, with McAllister, and they made it to the NFC Championship game, where the Saints fell to the Chicago Bears, the eventual runner-up to Super Bowl champion Indianapolis.

Clearly, the Saints don’t believe McAllister has the ability to contribute in the playoffs.  The man he replaced on the roster, Rodney Leslie, is a reserve defensive tackle, who did not practice this week due to a knee injury.

Additionally, this isn’t exactly a situation where a team like Kansas City were to resign Trent Green because he never really had a shot in the playoffs during his six years on the team.  Or if the Dolphins were to bring back Zach Thomas as an honorary captain right before the playoffs were to kick off.

So why then?  The sentimental value of having him on the squad as a captain is apparent, but my general view on this New Orleans team is that they are driven from within by several players with something to prove (i.e. Drew Brees, Jeremy Shockey and a host of others) and a coach who is fiery and motivated to have success.  However, there may be more to the drive behind this Bourbon Street squad.

McAllister’s signing may be evidence that Payton doesn’t feel his team is motivated enough coming into the playoffs.  They did, after all, tumble into their number one seed after three consecutive losses to Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina.  This after the outspoken effort to have a perfect season. 

Perhaps Payton felt they poured all of their emotion into the perfect season, only to fall short and be running on fumes going into “The Tournament.”  Maybe Payton realized that defenses had figured out how to slow down Brees and the Saints’ prolific passing attack and that offenses had worked through a tough defense to control the ball and score points on an always game Saints defense.  The Saints have not had a dominating performance since their big Monday night win against the New England Patriots on November 30th and have not scored more than twenty points in over a month, since they put up 26 in a 3-point victory at Atlanta.

An injection of emotion from the returning McAllister may have been just the right prescription for this stumbling team.

Regardless, it is curious, has been interesting to watch and is a story that has flown under the radar as more “feel good” than anything.

I still like the Saints this weekend mostly because I think the Superdome is a huge advantage and that their team does show the makings of one that wants to prove everyone wrong, make a name for themselves and are ready for the big time.  Not to mention the fact that Brees must have needed a drool cup as he watched Aaron Rodgers and the Packers take apart the Cardinal defensive secondary.

I think Brees and Warner give us an aerial show but that eventually the Saints pull ahead and move into the NFC Championship.

Here are my official picks (in caps).  Lines are from Danny Sheridan as of Saturday morning.

SAINTS (-7) 34, Cardinals 24

I think Brees and New Orleans have a feeding frenzy on Arizona’s defense and the Saints’ defense does just enough to slow down Kurt Warner in what may be his last game.

INDIANAPOLIS (-6) 27, Baltimore 16

The layoff will get Indy off to a slow start, but I think Peyton and company play a smart game and handle the Ravens.  I also have a hunch that something really is wrong with Joe Flacco.

Minnesota 17, DALLAS (+3) 16

A defensive battle here will be characterized by Dallas’ inability to stop the run late.  I also see Favre making enough big plays on third downs to limit Romo’s possessions in the second half.

San Diego 24, NEW YORK (+7) 21

Darelle Revis can’t cover everyone and Rivers finds enough opportunities around the field to withstand the Jets defense.  However, I think the show will be stolen by Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene in a coming out party of sorts.

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Filed under Betting, Football, NFL, Playoffs

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