It still counts as a win – the win that kept the New Orleans Saints’ season alive – but if you’re a Saints fan like me, you might be thinking, “It shouldn’t have been that hard.”
Sean Payton receiving a postgame slime bath courtesy of Nickelodeon seemed like a fitting ending to the Saints’ ugly playoff victory that eliminated the Chicago Bears, 21-9. But as I left the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with my dad – thrilled we got to attend a game in person together this crazy season – we couldn’t help but hope the Saints have more in the tank than they showed, especially on offense, for the Divisional round vs. Tampa Bay.
Their season sweep of the Bucs, including a 38-3 prime-time demolition Nov. 8, should give them plenty of inspiration. But Tom Brady has never lost to the same team three teams in a season in his career. Will it happen at the hands of Drew Brees and the Saints Sunday, Jan. 17, in their first-ever playoff showdown? It’s certainly possible.
Here are my top 3 reasons for optimism (and a couple causes for concern) after the Bears game:
Reasons for Optimism
Harris was an incredible offensive asset, making contributions when it felt sluggish otherwise, leading the team with 7 catches (on 7 targets) for 83 yards. Kamara started to find his groove in the second half – you just had the sense that he wanted the ball after being sidelined due to COVID-19 last week. The one person the Saints really missed on the injury front would have to be defensive end Trey Hendrickson. Without their sack leader, they struggled to consistently pressure QB Mitchell Trubisky, sacking him only once and forcing no turnovers. Hopefully they get him back next week, along with receiver Tre’Quan Smith to provide another offensive weapon.
Third-down conversions. The Saints dominated time of possession 38:58-21:02 and ran 75 plays to the Bears’ 49. Chicago didn’t convert its first 3rd down conversion until the 2-minute warning of the fourth quarter, finishing 1-for-10 (10%) and 0-for-1 on 4th downs. The Saints, conversely, were 11-of-17 on third down conversions (64.7%), sustaining two long touchdown drives, though they were aided by nine Chicago penalties – five resulting in Saints first downs. Don’t count on that kind of help from the Bucs in the next do-or-die showdown.
Dominant defense. I would’ve liked to see a takeaway or two and more than one sack, but overall the defense did its job Sunday when the offense was floundering early. No, it wasn’t a perfect performance – Chicago’s Javon Wims had a wide-open touchdown fall right through his hands when the score was only 7-0, and a touchdown on the game’s final play didn’t exactly feel great – but more importantly, the Saints shut down one of the Bears’ big weapons in RB David Montgomery (just 31 yards on 12 carries). Now the pass rush must get to Brady next week and force him into bad throws. The Saints have already intercepted him five times this season – the playoffs are a perfect time to add more!
Reasons for Concern
If this sounds like a pattern, you’re right. Hill has fumbled 10 times this season, one of the issues with his game we’ve noticed. New Orleans narrowly escaped another turnover against the Bears when a Brees interception was overturned by replay. The Saints made Tom Brady pay for his mistakes in the season sweep so far. Seems to me that this team will go as far as the defense will take it.
Kicking game. Wil Lutz missed yet another field goal Sunday, hooking a 50-yard attempt wide right indoors. He’s now 22-of-27 on the season after he started 18-of-19. Playoff games so often come down to special teams, so the Saints can’t afford to have question marks at kicker. Remember when Lutz drilled the 58-yarder at home to beat Houston in the 2019 season opener? The Saints need that kind of confidence in their special teams unit to make virtually any kick, especially if they advance and have to travel in the playoffs.