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Preseason power rankings: No. 12

After a year without the Saints, the folks in New Orleans have taken to their team like never before.

In 2006, there was a very good reason for it. The Saints made it to the playoffs, and they advanced to the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history.

The past two years have resulted in no postseason appearances. Though the tickets are still selling, the fans at some point will return to complacency, barring a serious push to the proverbial next level.

And so the Saints have made a somewhat serious push to address their most glaring weakness from a year ago -- their defense. Despite the looming reality that defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith will be suspended for four games each, the Saints used their first-round pick on a cornerback (Malcolm Jenkins) and they signed a veteran safety with playmaking skills (Darren Sharper). But they could have done even more via the draft but for the draft picks that were sent elsewhere in a failed (to date) trade for Jeremy Shockey.

Of course, the guy who pulled the trigger on the Shockey trade -- coach Sean Payton -- could see that move atop the list of reasons to fire him after the coming season.

The offense continues to be stellar, with one of the best quarterbacks in the game, capable wideouts, and a stable of solid but not spectacular running backs.

The absence of starting left tackle Jammal Brown for the first five games due to a hernia could put more pressure on the passing attack, but the Saints still have enough talent to compete for a playoff berth.

If they don’t, there could be trouble.

Key player: Drew Brees. He nearly broke the single-season passing yardage record last year, and the Saints need him to continue to churn out plenty of yards, week in and week out. Without him, this team is downright ordinary.

Rookie to watch: Jenkins. The only stat that matters in football is points scored versus points allowed, on a per-game basis. Jenkins will help the Saints deal with the latter half of that equation.

Best veteran acquisition: Sharper. Though he might not have much left, the Saints will benefit from his skills and leadership.

Key game: Week Seven, Atlanta. In a very difficult NFC South, the games against the Panthers and Falcons will be critical. The Saints get their first crack at either team on November 2.