Five NFL teams who can follow Saints’ march

Around this time last year, the New Orleans Saints were coming off an 8-8 season and a last-place finish in the NFC South. Having Drew Brees and an explosive offense gave them good potential to go from worst to first in their division, but the Super Bowl seemed like a long shot.

Texans hope to ride Matt Schaub's arm to Saints-like run.
Texans hope to ride Matt Schaub’s arm to Saints-like run.

Thanks, however, to a handful of smart personnel moves that boosted the defense — such as hiring Gregg Williams as coordinator and signing playmaking safety Darren Sharper — and a cleaner bill of health, everything fell into place on their road to a championship.

So which non-playoff teams from ’09 should have similar high hopes?

This list doesn’t include the Steelers or Giants, who recently won Super Bowls and always are expected to contend, despite playing in two of the NFL’s toughest divisions. Instead, let’s look at the five teams most capable of surprising everyone in the league with a Saints-like run this year:

1. Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta is just two years removed from its own surprising 11-5 season. Despite battling injuries and a more difficult schedule, the team fell back only two games in ’09. The key is keeping running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood healthy to return to a productive, efficient ball-control offense. Matt Ryan already is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.

Over the past two years, they’ve built a sound front seven and by signing Dunta Robinson they landed the sound cover corner the Falcons’ secondary desperately needed.

The Falcons are at their best being aggressive, forcing takeaways, and as their young players continue to improve, just fielding a top-half unit would be a big development. The Falcons are the one team that directly can follow the New Orleans’ formula.

2. Houston Texans

The Saints saw Brees lead the league in passing yardage a year before their Super Bowl run, so Houston hopes for a similar result after Matt Schaub took the honors in ’09.

Schaub will have all his best targets back with Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels and Jacoby Jones supporting All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson. It’s imperative the team finds a impact feature back in the draft to provide balance.

Defensively, the pieces are there, especially in the front seven with Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. The Texans have become stout against the run; the next step is dialing up the aggressiveness to create more sacks and takeaways.

For the team to really turn the corner, however, it comes down to two things: Performing better in the AFC South and closing out close games. Going from the brink of the playoffs to an elite team will require a 4-2 record in the division instead of last season’s dismal 1-5.

Vince Young's continued development is key for Titans' hopes for 2010 season.
Vince Young’s continued development is key for Titans’ hopes for 2010 season.

3. Tennessee Titans

Throwing out their winless September and October in ’09, the Titans have won 21 of their other past 26 games. The 0-6 beginning to the season was a blessing in disguise, because it caused the team to make the quarterback change to Vince Young, who proved he was a changed quarterback in going 8-2.

You can bet Jeff Fisher won’t let his team start so slowly again, and equipped with 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson and a secondary back at full strength, the Titans feel more like the 13-3 team of ’08 going into the season.

The question on everyone’s mind in Tennessee: Will Young continue to progress and develop into an elite all-around quarterback? The confidence and leadership skills are there to take the Titans to a title, but it’s imperative for Young to take another leap as a passer and decision-maker.

4. San Francisco 49ers

It’s been a long time since this organization was synonymous with the Super Bowl, but at least Mike Singletary has the team set to return to the playoffs. With St. Louis and Seattle in rebuilding mode and Arizona taking a big step back with personnel losses, the Niners have a golden opportunity to win the NFC West.

Alex Smith finally looks like a viable starting quarterback and has exciting receivers Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan. Frank Gore remains the offensive centerpiece, and the team surely will draft another skilled playmaker.

The 3-4 defense is also starting to jell with Aubrayo Franklin, Justin Smith, Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson all picking up their game around the unit’s superstar, All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis.

5. Miami Dolphins

They are well coached, well built and have a terrific blueprint. Unfortunately, that’s also the case for two teams they’re trying to displace in the AFC East, the Patriots and Jets. The success of the Dolphins’ 2010 season rests on the quarterback and the defense.

Chad Henne must make major strides in his second year as a starter. He has a stud left tackle in Jake Long and a powerful running game. However, he needs a No. 1 receiver and that might not come until draft weekend.

Defensively, the Dolphins already are a prolific pass-rushing team. It’s now critical they improve significantly against the run and make more game-changing plays. Adding ex-Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby was significant, and a second year for cornerback Vontae Davis and adding a ballhawking safety will help even more.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

Around this time last year, the New Orleans Saints were coming off an 8-8 season and a last-place finish in the NFC South. Having Drew Brees and an explosive offense gave them good potential to go from worst to first in their division, but the Super Bowl seemed like a long shot.

Texans hope to ride Matt Schaub's arm to Saints-like run.
Texans hope to ride Matt Schaub’s arm to Saints-like run.

Thanks, however, to a handful of smart personnel moves that boosted the defense — such as hiring Gregg Williams as coordinator and signing playmaking safety Darren Sharper — and a cleaner bill of health, everything fell into place on their road to a championship.

So which non-playoff teams from ’09 should have similar high hopes?

This list doesn’t include the Steelers or Giants, who recently won Super Bowls and always are expected to contend, despite playing in two of the NFL’s toughest divisions. Instead, let’s look at the five teams most capable of surprising everyone in the league with a Saints-like run this year:

1. Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta is just two years removed from its own surprising 11-5 season. Despite battling injuries and a more difficult schedule, the team fell back only two games in ’09. The key is keeping running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood healthy to return to a productive, efficient ball-control offense. Matt Ryan already is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.

Over the past two years, they’ve built a sound front seven and by signing Dunta Robinson they landed the sound cover corner the Falcons’ secondary desperately needed.

The Falcons are at their best being aggressive, forcing takeaways, and as their young players continue to improve, just fielding a top-half unit would be a big development. The Falcons are the one team that directly can follow the New Orleans’ formula.

2. Houston Texans

The Saints saw Brees lead the league in passing yardage a year before their Super Bowl run, so Houston hopes for a similar result after Matt Schaub took the honors in ’09.

Schaub will have all his best targets back with Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels and Jacoby Jones supporting All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson. It’s imperative the team finds a impact feature back in the draft to provide balance.

Defensively, the pieces are there, especially in the front seven with Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. The Texans have become stout against the run; the next step is dialing up the aggressiveness to create more sacks and takeaways.

For the team to really turn the corner, however, it comes down to two things: Performing better in the AFC South and closing out close games. Going from the brink of the playoffs to an elite team will require a 4-2 record in the division instead of last season’s dismal 1-5.

Vince Young's continued development is key for Titans' hopes for 2010 season.
Vince Young’s continued development is key for Titans’ hopes for 2010 season.

3. Tennessee Titans

Throwing out their winless September and October in ’09, the Titans have won 21 of their other past 26 games. The 0-6 beginning to the season was a blessing in disguise, because it caused the team to make the quarterback change to Vince Young, who proved he was a changed quarterback in going 8-2.

You can bet Jeff Fisher won’t let his team start so slowly again, and equipped with 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson and a secondary back at full strength, the Titans feel more like the 13-3 team of ’08 going into the season.

The question on everyone’s mind in Tennessee: Will Young continue to progress and develop into an elite all-around quarterback? The confidence and leadership skills are there to take the Titans to a title, but it’s imperative for Young to take another leap as a passer and decision-maker.

4. San Francisco 49ers

It’s been a long time since this organization was synonymous with the Super Bowl, but at least Mike Singletary has the team set to return to the playoffs. With St. Louis and Seattle in rebuilding mode and Arizona taking a big step back with personnel losses, the Niners have a golden opportunity to win the NFC West.

Alex Smith finally looks like a viable starting quarterback and has exciting receivers Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan. Frank Gore remains the offensive centerpiece, and the team surely will draft another skilled playmaker.

The 3-4 defense is also starting to jell with Aubrayo Franklin, Justin Smith, Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson all picking up their game around the unit’s superstar, All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis.

5. Miami Dolphins

They are well coached, well built and have a terrific blueprint. Unfortunately, that’s also the case for two teams they’re trying to displace in the AFC East, the Patriots and Jets. The success of the Dolphins’ 2010 season rests on the quarterback and the defense.

Chad Henne must make major strides in his second year as a starter. He has a stud left tackle in Jake Long and a powerful running game. However, he needs a No. 1 receiver and that might not come until draft weekend.

Defensively, the Dolphins already are a prolific pass-rushing team. It’s now critical they improve significantly against the run and make more game-changing plays. Adding ex-Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby was significant, and a second year for cornerback Vontae Davis and adding a ballhawking safety will help even more.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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