INSIDE SCOOP

Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Saints one of best in competitive NFC South

It’s rare that a team repeats as the NFC South champion, but the New Orleans Saints are clearly capable of doing that in 2018.

It won’t be easy because Carolina’s three-year run as division champion (2013-15) is the only time anyone has won consecutive titles in this division since it debuted in the 2002 season. And it looks like it again will be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL after sending three teams to the playoffs last season.

But the Saints seem poised to match if not surpass the success of last season when they went 11-5 and finished a three-game sweep of the Panthers in a wild-card playoff before their last-second loss to Minnesota in a divisional playoff.

They can assert their ability to win the division again when they open the season against Tampa Bay – the only NFC South team not to make the playoffs in 2017 – on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints won’t have leading rusher Mark Ingram II and the Bucs won’t have starting quarterback Jameis Winston as both players start the season under suspension, Ingram for four games and Winston for three. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start in Winston’s absence.

“I think they’re going to run their offense and we expect them to be balanced and then try to establish a good ground game,” New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said. “But I think that there will be some tweaks maybe as to what they want to do. Both those players are guys that are comfortable making throws in the pocket and getting out on the perimeter and leading their team.”

New Orleans was rejuvenated last season after three consecutive 7-9 finishes, primarily because of an extraordinarily successful draft class that featured four rookie starters, most notably the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the Offensive Rookie of the Year in running back Alvin Kamara.

The Saints didn’t lose any key players from last season, which also include tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and third-year receiver Michael Thomas, young stars that are only starting to mature and the team added significant veteran free agents such as linebacker Demario Davis, safety Kurt Coleman, cornerback Patrick Robinson, wide receiver Cameron Meredith and tight end Benjamin Watson. Throw in what looks to be a couple of more draft gems in defensive end Marcus Davenport and wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith and a second consecutive division title looks like just the first step in what could be a memorable season.

New Orleans went 3-1 in a mostly mundane preseason. Quarterback Drew Brees hardly played and there were no major injuries, though there were a few bumps and bruises.

If there was any significant stat in the preseason games it’s that the Saints outscored their opponents 46-0 in the fourth quarter, demonstrating a quality of depth that suggests this might be Payton’s most complete team.

The opener is the first opportunity for New Orleans to show that the no-repeat syndrome that has plagued the NFC South might not be in play this season.

The Saints were 6-1 against its division opponents last season (counting the playoff game against Carolina) and if they’re going to repeat they can’t afford to stumble against the Buccaneers of all teams.

SERIES HISTORY: 53rd regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 32-20. Home team won both meetings last season, Saints prevailing 30-10 and the Bucs prevailing 31-24. No meeting has been more notable than the first one. That ended with Tampa Bay’s first NFL victory – a 33-14 triumph in 1977 in the Superdome – after losing its first 26 games as an expansion franchise.