New Orleans Saints Grind Out Wild Card Win to Set Up Brady-Brees Part 3

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

Saints are getting healthier.  Offensive players like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara both scored touchdowns in their rousing returns to the lineup, but let’s not forget about WR/punt returner Deonte Harris.   -
  • Saints are getting healthier. Offensive players like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara both scored touchdowns in their rousing returns to the lineup, but let’s not forget about WR/punt returner Deonte Harris.

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

Ball security. The Saints’ Week 17 interception-fest, racking up five picks and increasing their season turnover margin to +9 at Carolina, had them trending in the right direction.  But Chicago’s only relevant points Sunday came on a field goal directly after the Bears recovered a Taysom Hill fumble. -
  • Ball security. The Saints’ Week 17 interception-fest, racking up five picks and increasing their season turnover margin to +9 at Carolina, had them trending in the right direction. But Chicago’s only relevant points Sunday came on a field goal directly after the Bears recovered a Taysom Hill fumble.

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.

No. 2 New Orleans Saints Host No. 7 Chicago Bears Sunday at 3:40: First Look

We can stop simulating playoff scenarios now - the New Orleans Saints’ “Super Wild Card Weekend” matchup is official.  The Chicago Bears are coming to town, a foe they faced earlier this season and escaped with a 26-23 overtime win at Soldier Field. -

We can stop simulating playoff scenarios now – the New Orleans Saints’ “Super Wild Card Weekend” matchup is official. The Chicago Bears are coming to town, a foe they faced earlier this season and escaped with a 26-23 overtime win at Soldier Field.

It’s the first-ever NFC matchup featuring No. 2 vs. No. 7 seeds in this expanded playoff format, and many Saints fans might be having thoughts like, “How is this fair? If this was any other year, we’d be sitting pretty with a first-round bye (formerly granted to the top two teams in each conference).”

But these are the rules. Hey, look on the bright side – Alvin Kamara has a better chance of returning from COVID-19 since the game is Sunday at 3:40 p.m., if he meets all league protocols. However, he cannot practice or be with the team before Sunday. But it’s straight up impressive how Sean Payton and the Saints plug and play no matter who’s been unavailable at various points this season, from offensive stalwarts to defensive playmakers:

No running backs, no problem: WR/RB Ty Montgomery (pictured, cred. USA Today) ran 18 times for 105 yards, including a long of 36 yards, as part of the Saints’ 156-yard rushing day. -
  • No running backs, no problem: WR/RB Ty Montgomery (pictured, cred. USA Today) ran 18 times for 105 yards, including a long of 36 yards, as part of the Saints’ 156-yard rushing day.

We’ll keep a close eye on if Kamara can return for Sunday and build on his career-high 1,688 scrimmage yards, as well as when Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington and Trey Burton return – they are expected back this week. Drew Brees was sacked twice Sunday, but he put together some great throws, including a highlight-reel catch by undrafted free agent pickup Marquez Callaway, and most importantly, zero interceptions.

  • You get an interception, you get an interception…..: The Saints’ turnover margin improved to +9 with five interceptions by five different players (Malcolm Jenkins, Grant Haley, Marshon Lattimore, P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley) at Carolina, and they didn’t turn the ball over. That’s a recipe for winning football in the postseason. They also racked up five sacks.

  • Offense clicking at the right time: The Saints’ offense was balanced in their final regular season game – 30 runs for 156 yards & 32 passes for 191 yards – huge especially if they have to travel in the playoffs. But let’s not look too far ahead. Against the Bears, the Saints will definitely get top receiver Michael Thomas back, and possibly even Deonte Harris. And just look the season they’ve been able to put together without their biggest offensive weapons – Brees, Kamara and Thomas have only played 10 quarters together all year – they cracked the top 5 in scoring offense for the fifth straight year.

On Sunday, WR Emmanuel Sanders praised Payton’s masterful game planning in the face of adversity.

“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” Sanders said. I’ve enjoyed being around his energy and his intellect. To me, the coach of the year.”

So can the New Orleans Saints fend off the Bears a second time this season? The Bears put themselves in playoff position with three straight wins scoring 33 points or more before landing with a thud Sunday against Green Bay, 35-16. However, they still backed into the playoffs with Arizona’s loss to the L.A. Rams – completely opposite of the Saints, who are gaining momentum.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the Bears’ season: 5-1 start, lose six straight, win three of four, with two quarterback changes sandwiched in (they’re back to Mitchell Trubisky after Nick Foles was injured in Week 10). Their three most recent wins came against struggling teams – Houston, Minnesota and Jacksonville – and the Bears are just the third team since the 1970 merger to reach the playoffs after losing six in a row. Congratulations, I guess?

David Montgomery is their workhorse at running back (1,070 yards, 4.3 avg, 8 TDs), and Chicago has receiving weapons in Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney and TE Jimmy Graham, so the Saints’ defense needs to be ready to get pressure, create turnovers and force field goals in the red zone.

Back in November at Chicago, the Saints offense was just 1-of-4 in the red zone and 2-of-13 on 3rd-down conversions against the Bears defense, arguably the strength of their team. It’s worth nothing though that the scoring defenses are virtually tied, yet favor the Saints (21 ppg to 23 ppg). Wil Lutz also missed a 27-yard field goal off the right upright (though he did convert the game-winner in overtime). Bears kicker Cairo Santos, meanwhile, was a perfect 3-for-3 in field goals. Playoff games so often come down to special teams, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for a clean performance in the kicking game.

As Saints fans, we’ve learned the hard way NOTHING is guaranteed in the postseason. No game is automatic. Everyone is 0-0. Time to chase another Lombardi Trophy!

Embrace the Chaos! NFL Playoffs Almost Here

Fantasy owners everywhere rejoiced when Alvin Kamara racked up SIX rushing touchdowns, matching Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals in 1929.  Kamara is only the third player to ever tally six touchdowns from scrimmage.  - New Orleans Saints fans got a sweet Christmas present as the Saints finally clinched the NFC South on Friday with their 52-33 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.

The 52 points are the most the Vikings allowed in a single game since 1963.

Fantasy owners everywhere rejoiced when Alvin Kamara racked up SIX rushing touchdowns, matching Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals in 1929. Kamara is only the third player to ever tally six touchdowns from scrimmage.

Did you ever think you’d see the day when the Saints scored seven rushing touchdowns – none passing – with Drew Brees at quarterback? It was encouraging, especially with the playoffs fast approaching.

Entering Sunday’s Week 16 games, the Saints’ playoff seeding scenarios were enough to make your head spin. Now after Seattle’s 20-9 win in a defensive struggle vs. the Rams and Green Bay’s 40-14 snow-filled win over Tennessee, the coveted first-round bye and home-field advantage in the NFC comes down to three 3:25 p.m. showdowns Jan. 3, 2021:

  • Packers (12-3) at Bears (8-7)

  • Saints (11-4) at Panthers (5-10)

  • Seahawks (11-4) at 49ers (6-9)

The Packers control their destiny, so if they beat Chicago, the road to Super Bowl LV goes through Green Bay. But the Bears also control their destiny for a wild card berth and their offense has found a new gear (30+ points in 4 straight games), so anything is possible in a bitter division rivalry like that. However, the Saints not only need to win at Carolina, they also need the Packers to lose and Seattle to win in order to earn the No. 1 seed.

STILL WITH ME? In that scenario, all three teams would be 12-4, and the conference record tiebreaker would come into play and favor the Saints. It could happen. But it won’t matter unless the Saints give themselves a chance by taking care of business and sweeping the Panthers on Sunday. Carolina is a team that would love nothing more than to play spoiler and continue building momentum for next season under first-year head coach Matt Rhule.

No matter how things shake out in Week 17, I want to point out the lowest the New Orleans Saints can be is No. 3. Also, they are on pace to run for more yards as a team (currently 2,109) than they have since 1983. The Saints are averaging the most rushing yards per game and the fewest passing yards per game in the entire Payton/Brees era.

So even if they have to encounter some chilly weather, and ultimately the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to reach the Super Bowl, their success running the football could position them quite well to make a deep postseason run.

New Orleans Saints Playoff Bound for Fourth Straight Year

There’s hardly an opponent the New Orleans Saints enjoy beating more than the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons, especially with a chance to clinch a playoff berth. Two weeks after sacking Matt Ryan eight times in New Orleans, the Saints escaped Atlanta with their eighth sweep of the “Dirty Birds” since 2006, after a 21-16 victory that was entirely too close for comfort – though if you stop to think about it, it shouldn’t have been that close.

new orleans saints atlanta falcons playoff berth.jpgAs they watch the game film, the Saints, now 10-2 and still atop the NFC, will know exactly why the Falcons hung around. They committed 10 penalties for 79 yards, allowing the Falcons five first downs by penalty.

And despite backup QB Taysom Hill’s overall excellent day, including his first two career touchdown passes, ball security and taking time off the clock are paramount when you’re protecting a 12-point lead:

The Saints were ahead 21-9 early in the fourth quarter. The defense hadn’t allowed a touchdown in 14 straight quarters and had just forced a Matt Ryan fumble at the Atlanta 18-yard line. So Hill and the offense had a chance to pad their lead with at least a field goal. A touchdown might have put the game out of reach the way the defense was dominating yet again.

But instead, trying to avoid a sack, Hill fumbled the ball away – and the Falcons marched down the field 85 yards for a touchdown. How amazing it would have been to keep Atlanta out of the end zone for both games! But getting the win was far more important, as the defense had to step up twice more to finish it off – again in the red zone and finally on a Hail Mary as time expired.

The Saints haven’t to win a heart attack-style game since a 3-point win at Chicago way back on Nov. 1. So what 3 things did we learn from this win that turned into a nail-biter?

Taysom Hill is learning every week.  Sunday was the third straight win with Hill as starter, and he threw his first touchdown passes in four years - to Tre’Quan Smith and Jared Cook - to propel the Saints.  He finished 27-of-37 for 232 yards (105 to Michael Thomas), no interceptions but was sacked twice and lost that crucial fumble.  He also used his legs to rush for 83 yards, including a 43-yard run down the sideline. -
  • Taysom Hill is learning every week. Sunday was the third straight win with Hill as starter, and he threw his first touchdown passes in four years – to Tre’Quan Smith and Jared Cook – to propel the Saints. He finished 27-of-37 for 232 yards (105 to Michael Thomas), no interceptions but was sacked twice and lost that crucial fumble. He also used his legs to rush for 83 yards, including a 43-yard run down the sideline.

Can you believe Sean Payton and the Saints are 8-0 without Drew Brees the past two seasons? Brees is eligible to return in Week 14 at Philadelphia, but it’s certainly not definite. The Eagles are in an identity crisis, so I’d say let Hill go one more week, and focus on a potential Brees return for the marquee matchup Dec. 20 against the 11-1 Kansas City Chiefs. The Saints will need their full arsenal if they want to win that one.

The Saints defense is the main reason they’ve clinched a playoff spot.  Apparently Sean Payton warned his players not to get too caught up in the hype, pulling the old stinky cheese in the locker trick, as Pro Football Talk reported.  Dennis Allen’s defense has put up some incredible numbers in the past five games, allowing just two touchdowns and 44 total points (8.8 ppg), and they’re up to 36 sacks on the year (T-3rd in the NFL).   -
  • The Saints defense is the main reason they’ve clinched a playoff spot. Apparently Sean Payton warned his players not to get too caught up in the hype, pulling the old stinky cheese in the locker trick, as Pro Football Talk reported. Dennis Allen’s defense has put up some incredible numbers in the past five games, allowing just two touchdowns and 44 total points (8.8 ppg), and they’re up to 36 sacks on the year (T-3rd in the NFL).

Great defense, especially in the red zone where the Falcons were just 1-for-4, is what you need to win on the road, in case Green Bay overtakes the Saints for the No. 1 seed. Sunday’s win gives the Saints a 23-7 road mark in regular season games since 2017 (credit my friend Mike Detillier for that one!). For a team whose hallmark is winning at home, that’s pretty darn good!

  • Keep up the ground attack. I watched Melvin Gordon and the Denver Broncos run all over the Chiefs for 179 yards in the Sunday night game and thought, “This is the recipe for beating Kansas City – keep Patrick Mahomes on the sideline.” Denver just failed to score enough points to get the job done. The Saints meanwhile rushed 36 times for 207 yards Sunday at Atlanta, with Alvin Kamara leading the pack with 88 yards and a score, and they are 7th in the NFL with 140.8 rushing yards per game. If they can dominate time of possession with a balanced attack like they did Sunday (36:54-23:06), and succeed in the red zone, that’s a recipe for winning in the postseason.

New Orleans Saints’ Ultimate Statement Win

AP+Photo

There’s no other way to slice it.

The New Orleans Saints’ 38-3 victory Sunday night at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a demolition of epic proportions. It reminded me of the Nov. 30, 2009 game against the Patriots when Bill Belichick actually pulled Tom Brady late in the game because the Saints were so in command.

But that was then.

This game was arguably more critical because control of the NFC South was on the line.

The Saints had rather quietly won four straight games entering the showdown. Drew Brees and Brady were wrestling for the NFL’s all-time lead in passing touchdowns. The Bucs were sporting one of the NFL’s best defenses. But six days after Tampa Bay escaped the New York Giants’ MetLife Stadium with a two-point win, fighting to the final snap, the Saints stormed into Raymond James Stadium and asserted firm control.

The statistics are eye-popping.

New Orleans won the time of possession battle 40:04 to 19:56 and forced Brady into three more interceptions in the worst loss of his career in terms of margin.

It’s also the first time ever he’s been swept by a division rival (sorry, Tom, no more Jets to blow out in the NFC South).

The Saints defense – yes, the Saints defense – has five of Brady’s seven interceptions this season, and they pressured him relentlessly, including three sacks (two by Trey Hendrickson, who now is No. 3 in the NFL with 7.5 sacks.

Here are some other reasons the Saints put on a performance that fans will remember for a long time:

12 different receivers caught a pass!  The Saints were finally full strength on offense with the returns of Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but the fact that 11 different players in the first half alone had receptions showed you that everyone came to play.  The Saints controlled the clock with 37 runs and 29 passes, and Brees added four more touchdowns for a 564-561 career lead over Brady, for now. -
  1. 12 different receivers caught a pass! The Saints were finally full strength on offense with the returns of Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but the fact that 11 different players in the first half alone had receptions showed you that everyone came to play. The Saints controlled the clock with 37 runs and 29 passes, and Brees added four more touchdowns for a 564-561 career lead over Brady, for now.

2. Winning in the trenches. Every time you turned around, it seemed like Brady’s offensive line was helping him off the turf. Yes, starting left guard Ali Marpet was out with a concussion, but three sacks, nine QB hits, and pressures on 46% of his dropbacks is impressive for the Saints defense to build on. Not to mention holding the Bucs to 1 of 9 on 3rd down conversions and 0 of 3 on 4th downs! On the other side, the Saints rushed for 138 yards (3.7 avg) against what was the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense. Taysom Hill (7 carries, 54 yards) and Alvin Kamara (9 carries, 40 yards, 1 TD) led the way on the ground, and the Saints O-line committed no holding penalties!

3. Saints thrive as underdogs!  Didn’t you just have a feeling when the whole SNF pregame team picked the Bucs that the Saints might shock the world? -

3. Saints thrive as underdogs! Didn’t you just have a feeling when the whole SNF pregame team picked the Bucs that the Saints might shock the world?

I thought it would be a nail-biter similar to their two overtime contests, but a sheer smackdown came out of nowhere. It wasn’t perfect – let’s not forget the two fumbles – but the defense responded by forcing drives of:

  • 3 plays, 2 yards, punt

  • 6 plays, 20 yards, downs (the goal line stand when the Saints already led 31-0)

So the Saints passed Sunday night’s test with flying colors, and now they have some very winnable games ahead of them, starting with two straight home games against the 49ers & Falcons. A fourth straight NFC South title would be unprecedented, but with a sweep of Brady’s Bucs, it’s officially the Saints’ race to lose.