Well, the New Orleans Saints may not be completely out of the woods just yet, but at least they can hang their hat on this — Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith (along with linebacker Scott Fujita who is now with the Browns) are back with the team after their suspensions for they're alleged (Is it still alleged? I don't know...) involvement in the pay-for-pain 'Bountygate' scandal were overturned by a three-member appeals panel.
All involved players were reinstated by the league almost immediately after the ruling came down, but in no way is the league admitting defeat. Just as we expected, this fight is far from over. The players may have won this particular battle, but no doubt the league is still ultimately trying to win the war.
But enough of that. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Let's talk about why we're really here — does the return of the reinstated players for New Orleans (Vilma and Smith) make them the front runner in the NFC South?
If the Saints are able to retain the services of Vilma and Smith without interruption for the entire season (not sure how likely that is), you better believe that they'll be primed to be the top dogs in the NFC South once again.
Here's three reasons why.
1) The offense won't miss a beat. With Drew Brees inked to a new contract, you can bet that the Saints — even without head coach and offensive guru Sean Payton calling the plays — are still going to drop 30+ points a night. You won't have to worry about the offense over the course of the season, so it's just going to come down to the defense making enough stops while Brees orchestrates a masterful symphony on the other side of the ball and carries the Saints to victories with his arm.
2) The schedule will be grueling for the Saints, but the schedules faced by their fellow NFC South division members will be just as tough and honestly, outside of the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints shouldn't have any other competition for the division title — barring that Cam Newton doesn't 'pull a Greg Jennings' and put his Carolina Panthers team on his back.
3) The defense (at least the front seven anyway) was already going to be strong for the Saints even without the services of the now reinstated players. When the Saints thought Vilma was lost for the season to suspension, they want out and got studs Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne to shore up the linebacking corps. Now that Smith and Vilma are able to play too, the Saints' defense should be all the more fearsome. Well, at least it would be if they could somehow manage to solve their secondary woes...
Regardless though, I'll take the Saints as the favorites in the NFC South this season. They just have too much firepower and offense, and maybe, just maybe, with the return of Smith, and especially Vilma whom they believed was lost to them for the entire 2012 season, their defense might be inspired to play above and beyond what any of us expect.