New Orleans are heavy favourites for their Wildcard playoff showdown against the Chicago Bears with good reason, writes Mark Kirwan...
"This season has once again demonstrated the resourcefulness of coach Sean Payton that has kept them coming back despite the agonising losses. "
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints
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Saints go marching again
In all likelihood we're seeing the final days of Drew Brees as New Orleans' starting quarterback, and losing to this Chicago Bears would be a very grim way to end one of the great careers.
That's not just because his Saints team is a cut above their opponents on Sunday, which they are, but because this version of the Louisianan franchise will have enjoyed a streak of winning seasons without even making it to the title decider, let alone claiming the Lombardi trophy.
Traditionally one of the most topsy-turvy divisions, New Orleans have won the NFC South for the fourth consecutive year, but they've not made the most of this regular-season dominance.
Two stunning losses to the Vikings and a controversial overtime defeat to the Rams in the Conference final have seen their last three seasons end before the Super Bowl that looked a fitting reward for this team.
The leaguewide expectation is that #Saints QB Drew Brees will officially retire after the season is over, per @AdamSchefter. Brees signed a broadcasting deal with NBC in April, and after going through a season that included 11 fractured ribs, Brees is likely done playing.? NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 3, 2021
This season has once again demonstrated the resourcefulness of coach Sean Payton that has kept them coming back despite the agonising losses.
Covid has been an ever-present threat, and injuries to both Brees and star receiver Michael Thomas would've crippled lesser rosters and coaching teams.
But the Saints powered through these issues. Their defence has risen to the challenge, while players like Latavius Murray, Taysom Hill, Manny Sanders, Tre'quan Smith and Jared Cook stepped up with their more high-profile players out.
Ty Montgomery stepped in last week when Alvin Kamara and the rest of the Saints' running backs were ruled out due to Covid and posted over 100 yards.
Kamara is set to return this week and he unlocks both rushing and passing games for their offence. His last game was in Week 16 where he scored six rushing touchdowns and he could break playoff records if he's in the right mood against the Bears.
Doubt about Kamara's fitness is one hope Chicago could cling to.
The Bears offence ranks among the weakest in the league this season. 26th in offensive yardage, 22nd in Redzone TD percentage, 31st in Third-Down Conversions per game.
The Bears rode a weak schedule and the new playoff format - seven-teams per conference - to nab a Wildcard spot.
Only one of their victories came against a team that finished with a winning record. That, over Tampa Bay in Week 8, came with Nick Foles as starter. He's since been usurped by Mitch Trubisky.
Coach Matt Nagy deserves some credit all the same. He's pared down the offence and focused on David Montgomery at running back rather than Trubisky and his one quality receiver, Allen Robinson.
That approach has its limitations. The Packers controlled Chicago in Week 17 even though the Bears may have needed to win to make the playoffs.
As it turned out, results went their way, but they'll need more than a bit of luck to overcome a huge deficit in class against the Saints.
Their defence could provide it with some big plays, but linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Jaylon Johnson are questionable for this game and would be big losses if they can't play.
Even if they do, Chicago's anaemic offence will have to overcome a Saints D that ranks among the best in the league.
There's little to recommend about the Bears here and, even in a playoff game, the Saints -9.5 appeals.
They've home advantage, they should have Kamara back for his first game since the record-breaking Saturday six-TD game in Week 16, and their defence could shutdown Chicago completely. I'm surprised the line isn't higher.
Given the potential for the Bears to lay an egg, 47.5 on the Total Points is a number I'm wary of, so I'd rather look at the Saints points total instead at 28.5. I'd take them at 5/6 to top that number as they've scored more points in four of their last six games, including their last three outings.
I'd once again recommend Alvin Kamara as the first TD option, even at 4/1, and if you like the sound of that, the #OddsOnThat offering of 22/1 for Kamara to score the First and Second TDs of the game would also take my fancy for a small stake.
For an Anytime punt, I'd look at the Saints D, who are third in the league for turnover this season, at 5/1. Chicago are not good on offence and there will be errors. A defensive score seems more likely than the odds suggest.
1pt on New Orleans -9.5 on the Handicap market @ 10/11 on the Sportsbook
1pt on Over 28.5 on the Home Team Total Points market @ 5/6 on the Sportsbook
1pt on Alvin Kamara First TD Scorer @ 4/1 on the Sportsbook
0.5pts on #OddsOnThat Alvin Kamara First & Second TD Scorer @ 22/1 on the Sportsbook
1pt on New Orleans D/ST Anytime TD Scorer @ 5/1 on the Sportsbook