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If you’re the New Orleans Saints, how do you possibly attempt an encore?

In the 43-year history of the Super Bowl, only eight teams have been able to repeat as champions. And while last year the Saints were a Cinderella story, they now have a target on their back. You can’t fly under the radar with a Lombardi Trophy in the cockpit.

The Saints made practically zero changes in the offseason. It’s hard to blame a champion for not wanting to generally maintain the status quo, but just because last year’s team was good enough to win it all doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvement in 2010.

It’s ridiculous to think that the front office of a professional sports team would rest on its laurels, so maybe the Saints simply decided not to try to fix what probably isn’t broken. After all, no team made fewer offseason changes in 2009 than this one. They’ve been strangers to free agency for quite some time, and it seems to be working.

Now, though, they’ve got the whole league trying to beat them. And they’re without some starters on a defence that is good, but not great.

The task isn’t impossible, but it’s going to be freakin’ hard.

2009 in a nutshell: They start 13-0, finish with the NFC’s best record, edge Brett Favre’s Vikings in a NFC championship thriller and outplay the Colts to win their first-ever Super Bowl title.

Why 2010 could be different, in a nutshell: Injuries; luck; odds; the loss of backup quarterback Mark Brunell (just kidding).

Three random thoughts/observations/projections

1. I’d say that no defensive player had a bigger impact on the Saints’ Super Bowl campaign than Darren Sharper. At 33, the veteran had the best season of his career, intercepting nine passes (and taking three to the house) while covering the entire field from his free safety position. Sharper was great in pass protection and didn’t shy away from making big tackles. And that’s why his health situation worries me. Sharper, who had offseason microfracture surgery on his left knee, was placed on the PUP list and will miss at least the first six weeks of the season. Gregg Williams’ aggressive defence won’t be the same without him.

2. One free agent acquisition who will be counted on to make a relatively large impact is Alex Brown. The former Chicago Bear has officially stepped into a starting role at defensive end following the release of Bobby McCray. The good news is that Brown is consistent and doesn’t get hurt (at least he hasn’t in recent years). The bad news is that he’s never had more than seven sacks in a single season. With Will Smith working the other end spot, that could change this year.

3. What might have astonished me most about the Saints’ Super Bowl season is that they did it without Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown protecting Drew Brees’ blind side. Not only that, but Brown’s replacement, Jermon Bushrod, was pretty much considered to be a scrub. While Bushrod did personally perform well, the fact that the Saints surrendered an NFC-low 20 sacks proves how great the line is as a whole. Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans, Jonathan Goodwin and Jon Stinchcomb gave Bushrod a ton of help, keeping the offence running on a near-record-breaking pace. That’s why the team felt comfortable enough to trade Jammal Brown in the offseason and spend a second-round pick on USC’s Charles Brown, who is probably the left tackle of the future.

2010 prediction: They’ll win the division again, but I don’t know if the defence will be good enough to get them back to the Super Bowl. I’m thinking they lose in the NFC championship game this time. Although that could change slightly when I publish my full predictions in about 24 hours.

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