Saints far from perfect as playoffs approach

Drew Brees and the Saints aren't perfect but a championship is still within reach. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS -- Now we know for certain the New Orleans Saints are not a perfect team.

But come on, stop acting so surprised that the Dallas Cowboys came into the Superdome on Saturday night, dominated the Saints for three quarters, and were able to hold off a furious fourth-quarter rally on their way to a 24-17 victory.

This time, there was no miracle on Poydras Street, just Drew Brees getting crushed (again) and fumbling the ball -- and his shot at the MVP trophy to Peyton Manning -- as the clock ticked down. So much for 16-0.

But isn’t this kind of appropriate anyway? Reach deep down and tell the truth -- have the Saints really been anything close to a perfect team for the last month or so?

If you had visions of them going through the regular season undefeated and strolling on to win the Super Bowl (read 19-0), you were hallucinating or too caught up in the hype. Fact is, the Saints have showed their flaws every week (except for that New England game) since a Nov. 15 trip to St. Louis.

Maybe you should have seen rookies and old guys getting thrown into the secondary and getting thrown on. Maybe you shouldn’t have been nominating replacement left tackle Jermon Bushrod for the Pro Bowl and realized that, translated into Cajun, Bushrod means "smoke, mirrors and, in the end, duck."

And maybe you haven’t noticed, but no matter who’s in the secondary, this defense just isn’t all that good when defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis isn’t on the field. Oh, and there also was that myth, although it sure looked true for a long time, that the Saints could spot anybody any lead and still find a way to win it in the fourth quarter.

Soon-to-be-former Cowboys kicker Nick Folk did open the door for the miracle of all miracles when he sent a short field-goal attempt on a collision course with the upright with two minutes, 16 seconds remaining. But 2:04 later, Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware blew past Bushrod and decked Brees and any shot at perfection.

"All of our goals are still out there,"’ New Orleans receiver Marques Colston said.

Several other Saints uttered similar words and they are absolutely right. The Saints are 13-1, they should win their final two games against Tampa Bay at home and Carolina on the road, and they should end up with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

And, yes, it is still entirely possible this could be a special season. A Super Bowl victory remains somewhere on the horizon.

But let’s not talk Super Bowl or even playoffs right now.

"If you’re playing a playoff game and you go out and play like that, you’re going to have the same result as tonight," New Orleans safety Darren Sharper said.

Sharper is exactly right. Picture the Saints playing the way they did against the Cowboys against … oh, let’s say Philadelphia or Arizona or Minnesota or Dallas, again, in the playoffs. It would be ugly.

But this isn’t about bashing the Saints, so let’s look on the bright side. All the attention and pressure that comes with being undefeated is now gone. And all those questions about whether the Saints should rest their starters or shoot for perfection will stop.

"There is no type of relief,’" New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "It’s disappointing. It’s disappointing when you lose."

Disappointing, but not really all that disastrous.

The Saints are still in a spot where everyone else in the NFC would love to be sitting. And, this might be the best news of all, there’s plenty of room to make it all better.

Now, the Saints can focus entirely on fixing their problems. They got banged-up cornerback Tracy Porter and linebacker Scott Fujita back on the field against the Cowboys. The Saints are always very tight-lipped with information on injuries and Payton wasn’t providing any postgame updates on running back Reggie Bush, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, center Jonathan Goodwin or cornerback Randall Gay, each of whom had to leave the field, for at least some time, with injuries.

All indications are cornerback Jabari Greer, who has sat out the past six games with a groin injury, Ellis and tight end Jeremy Shockey, who was a bit of a surprise scratch Saturday with a turf-toe injury, will be back. Maybe before the regular season ends, and almost certainly for the playoffs.

Plug Greer and Porter back in as the starting cornerbacks and you don’t have to keep throwing rookie Malcolm Jenkins and veteran Mike McKenzie, who was on the street a month ago, out there. Plug Greer and Porter back in and Sharper no longer has to play mostly Cover 2 to bail out McKenzie and Jenkins. Sharper can roam free as he did early in the season when he was an interception machine.

Remember how good the New Orleans defense was early in the season? There’s really no reason it can’t be like that again. Get Ellis and Greer healthy and all the parts should be in place.

And get Shockey back healthy so the Saints can go with their two-tight end sets, with Shockey and David Thomas, instead of having to use only Thomas and leaving Bushrod without much help against the Dallas pass rush.

Picture all that and you still can see a bright ending for the Saints. It can’t be perfect now, but if the Saints can fix all that’s ailed them for the last month in time for the playoffs, a Super Bowl win would be better than perfect.