Sunday, December 27, 2009

Whatever happened to the best team in the NFC?

Posted By on Sun, Dec 27, 2009 at 10:11 PM

click to enlarge Cadillac rollin

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Photograph by Jonathan Bachman

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Three weeks ago, all the talk was about the Saints' potentially undefeated season. Last week's loss against Dallas seemed like a hiccup; up until that point the Saints had played good (and sometimes great) enough to earn their first-round bye. A Minnesota meltdown in Carolina also gave the Saints a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now, after a completely stunning 20–17 overtime loss to the Buccaneers, the Saints appear to be reeling and there's no telling when they'll get back in control.

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Playoff football, as anyone who follows the NFL can attest, is a much different animal than the regular season. A loss to Tampa is awfully disappointing, but the Saints will live to play another day. There's no such luxury in post-season football and there's an added pressure to perform at the highest level. Against a broken, two-win Buccaneers team, the Saints struggled to get a victory. How will they fare against Minnesota, Philly or any other formidable playoff opponent? The New Orleans defense showed some of its early-season form with two interceptions the huge fourth-down stand with just under five minutes left, but they also let up 439 yards to a Tampa Bay offense ranked 29th in the league. No to mention the Black and Gold were completely unable to stop Cadillac Williams in overtime (he had nine carries for 40 yards in the period). The offense, after a hot start, failed to score a second-half point, with a Marques Colston fumble and a missed field goal leaving desperately need points on the field.

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Teams have overcome defensive shortcomings in the past (most famously, the 2007 Colts who won the Super Bowl despite a poor rushing defense) but it's an issue that needs to be addressed. After starting the season 13-0 with all kinds of aspirations, the Saints must now take a good long look at themselves and see if they can't once again grasp the mojo that powered them through the first three quarters of the season.

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Hot Gumbo:

  • Drew Brees - 32-of-37 for 258 yards and a touchdown seem like incredible numbers, but even this hot gumbo has a hint of expired crustacean in it. 37 attempts is about 15 more than you'd like to see Brees throwing in a game the Saints led for most of the way. But you can't fault Brees for the play-calling as he did his job admirably on the field.
  • Robert Meachem - He had 66 yards on five catches including a wide-open touchdown and a clutch fourth-quarter grab that should have secured a Saints win had they not missed the ensuing field goal.
  • Pierre Thomas - Managed to earn 60 yards on just six carries and scored a touchdown before being forced out of the game with bruised ribs. When the Saints were cruising, it seemed like he could've had two weeks off to rest and get healthy. Now New Orleans has a must-win in Carolina and may have to expose Thomas to more punishment.

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Spoiled Crawfish:

  • Saints Special Teams - As if that 77-yard punt return for a touchdown wasn't bad enough, the entire Saints' punting unit made fools of themselves when they (incorrectly) tried to accuse Tampa Bay of offsides or encroaching on the previous play. Yes, the Tampa player jumped offside for a moment. But guess what? He's allowed to do that as long as he doesn't touch an opposing player and makes it back onsides before the snap. The Saints seemed distracted on the next play as Tampa was running back the tying score. Oh and don't get me started on that missed field goal that would've ended the game in regulation.
  • Saints Rushing Defense - The Saints gave up 176 yards on the ground, including all 48 yards the Bucs gained in overtime on the ground. When you can't close out a team like Tampa Bay at home, with a chance to clinch homefield advantage, you have some serious problems.
  • Saints Passing Defense - Sean Payton was asked if he was concerned about his secondary since they've given up an average of 313 passing yards their last four games. This was Payton's answer: "In our league it's crisis or carnival because the stuff in the middle doesn't sell." Um...what? Payton went on to say something about learning about your team's character when you hit adversity and yadda, yadda. Translation: Sean Payton is worried about his secondary. You should be worried, too.
  • Sean Payton - I was going to put the Saints Offense here for the sake of balance, but the offense played so well for most of the game that it seems unfair. Payton already laid some blame on himself for the loss but lets heap on some more blame while we're here. How is it that the Saints came out so flat in the second half? How does he account for the team's total drop-off since that great victory against New England a month ago? Payton and the Saints have ignored many glaring short-comings for too long, now it's time to see if they can recover.
  • Garret Hartley - Payton made a good point that fans shouldn't point to just one aspect of this Saints' loss and put the blame on that. Sure, Hartley's miss wasn't the reason for the Saints loss - the defense could've showed up in overtime, special teams could've done a better job in punt coverage, among other things - but Hartley is paid to make field goals and that one would've ended the game. He missed (for just the second time all season, no less) and the Saints ended up losing. That makes him a scapegoat.

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Room-temperature Abita:

  • Marques Colston - He had eight receptions for 77 yards but that fourth quarter fumble cost the Saints some much needed points (New Orleans would've had a first down inside Tampa's 40 had he hung onto the fooball). Lukewarm day for no. 12.
  • Reggie Bush - He had 66 rushing yards, 37 receiving yards and 14 return yards for a pretty preductive day. And hey! He didn't get injured! Isn't that something?
  • Darren Sharper - Got his eighth interception of the season, good for second-best in the NFL, but was also part of a secondary that Josh Freeman put up 217 passing yards.
  • Tracy Porter - Also got an INT (in the end zone, no less) and has gotten better since returning from injury. It'd be nice if the Saints could take all the individual accomplishments in their secondary and turn it into a victory.
  • Tom Benson - He's kept the team in New Orleans, put the right people in charge of football that's led to this 13-win season and yet, save a Super Bowl victory, this may be the lasting (moving) image of the season:

click to enlarge " width=

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Sorry, Tom, Hartley missed wide left. Yea, we thought it was as good as in, too.

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