5 Takeaways from a Wild NFL Week 18

For the first time since 2016, the New Orleans Saints won’t be in the postseason. It’s a tough way to end a season where the Saints always seemed to have their backs against the wall.

From Hurricane Ida, to COVID adversity, to too many injuries to count, not many people expected the Saints to be in the hunt until the end. But the Saints-Falcons season finale turned into an unexpected storyline of Week 18. If the Saints won and 49ers lost at the Rams, the fighters from the Big Easy would earn a trip to sunny L.A. for Super Wild Card Weekend.

Only half that puzzle came true.

The Saints’ season ended on a high note with a 30-20 victory over the Dirty Birds – their sixth win on the road this season. But when Matthew Stafford’s overtime interception landed in the waiting arms of 49ers rookie Ambry Thomas, New Orleans’ locker room had “a hollow feeling,” QB Trevor Siemian said.

Even more annoying was the Rams won the NFC West anyway despite the loss, thanks to the Arizona Cardinals’ continuing freefall at home, where they’re just 3-5.

It’s onto the offseason for New Orleans, reflecting on tremendous progress in year 1 without Drew Brees.

Fans won’t forget their heroic efforts on defense either, especially in the season sweep of Tampa Bay. But home losses to the Giants (4-13) and Falcons (7-10) are ones that got away. And don’t forget the 23-21 Titans loss back on Nov. 14. If the Saints made their extra points, that could’ve been a win too.

New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22) celebrates his interception against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
  1. The Raiders and Chargers didn’t tie! I only caught the fourth quarter of this insane game – after the 49ers won, I confess I poured myself a large glass of wine, had dinner with my husband, and forgot about football while I let lingering sadness pass that the Saints’ season was over.

    Looking at Twitter, I think I’m in the minority, but I’m so glad the Raiders didn’t tie the Chargers. From the Raiders’ perspective, isn’t it more satisfying to prevent your division rival from going to the postseason AND be a higher seed in the playoffs? Chargers coach Brandon Staley is getting a lot of heat for taking a timeout, but if the Chargers would’ve stuffed the Raiders on 3rd down and made the winning field goal longer than 47 yards, or maybe Daniel Carlson misses it, then we’re having a different conversation. Bill Barnwell breaks down the wild ending nicely – the Raiders had ZERO intention of settling for a tie on purpose, and I’m glad it didn’t end that way. (As I know Pittsburgh Steelers fans are, too!) Wasn’t it famed coach Herm Edwards who once said, “You play to win the game?!”

2. Colts squander golden opportunity – for second straight week. What’s happened in Indianapolis?? Jonathan Taylor was looking like an MVP candidate, and all the Colts had to do to punch their postseason ticket was beat 2-14 Jacksonville, after failing to beat the Raiders at home in Week 17. They were favored by 15.5 points – and the Jaguars wanted next year’s No. 1 overall pick. Cakewalk, right?

Wrong.

Talk about a clown show – the Colts lost at Jacksonville for the seventh straight time, fell to 0-7 when Taylor doesn’t reach 100 yards, and find themselves OUT of the playoffs. Oh, and the Jaguars clinched the No. 1 pick anyway when Detroit beat Green Bay Sunday. Ouch.

QB Carson Wentz was brought in to win big games, and he failed to deliver. The Jaguars sacked him six times and forced two turnovers, which they converted into 10 points. Big decisions to make in Indy, and plenty of blame to go around.

3. Black Monday off and running … Part of NFL Week 18 coming and going means Black Monday, when many NFL coaches and general managers are inevitably, or surprisingly, fired. One head-scratcher I woke up to today was Dolphins coach Brian Flores getting the boot.

It wouldn’t have seemed too difficult to imagine, say, midway through this season when Miami was 1-7. But the Dolphins closed the season winning eight of their final nine games and stayed in the playoff race until Week 17, swept the Patriots, and had winning seasons in two of Flores’ three seasons (including 10-6 in 2020 when they narrowly missed the playoffs).

Owner Stephen Ross made it clear he’s confident in QB Tua Tagovailoa, who finished 7th in the NFL in completion percentage this season while struggling to stay healthy. Ross harped on communication and collaboration in announcing the coaching change – remember the Dolphins were a team mentioned in Deshaun Watson rumors – so perhaps that influenced the decision. Either way, expect Flores to be a popular name in the hiring circles this offseason.

Who else has been fired? No real surprises – Broncos coach Vic Fangio, Bears coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Meanwhile Giants coach Joe Judge is still employed (until Tuesday, when Judge was canned after just two seasons). ESPN’s Ryan Clark teed off on the Giants’ “despicable display of football.” As if I needed another reason to be angry about the Saints’ loss to them in October.

Anyway…

4. It’s playoff time. I’m all aboard the AFC train this postseason. I always like to see my fellow LSU Tigers Joe Burrow & Ja’Marr Chase do well … so I’m on the Bengals vs. the Raiders Saturday. I also like the No. 1-seed Titans, mostly because they’re playing the shadow of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, whom they waxed 27-3 in Week 7. How did defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons not get picked for the Pro Bowl? 8.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and 39 quarterback pressures. If Simmons and the Titans have anything to say about it, they’ll have other plans that day.

Super Wild Card Weekend Schedule

Courtesy of NFL.com

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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.