The New Orleans Saints limped off the field in Seattle Monday night with tail tucked firmly between legs. The Seahawks administered a dominating beat down to a team far more used to delivering those kind of blows than taking them, and the Saints all but lost hope of clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs with the loss.
This much we know. But far more has yet to be decided as New Orleans plays host to the 9-3 Carolina Panthers Sunday night, the start of a brutal four-game stretch that will ultimately determine who wears the NFC South crown at season’s end. After Monday night’s thrashing, New Orleans transformed from the cocky Crescent City into the Big Uneasy. The Seahawks’ ability to stonewall Drew Brees and company exposed major flaws in the Saints’ offense that not many people thought were there. Pete Carroll’s team didn’t just prove its own dominance over the rest of the conference. It did something much more damning.
It proved the Saints are mortal.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera echoed those sentiments, almost in disbelief. You mean to tell me that offense can be held to 188 total yards? Jimmy Graham can be completely smothered? It’s as if the Seahawks snatched away the Saints’ manhood faster than the team’s hope for a number one seed.
"We got beat good tonight," Payton said when it was over, almost submissively. He saw first-hand what a hard-nosed, physical defense did to his prized offense. He watched as a mobile quarterback sliced and diced his defense for every blade of grass in CenturyLink Field. It would be a shock if he’s had a good night’s sleep since.
But no matter how many times Payton watches the film in horror, no amount of hashing or rehashing can reverse the scoreboard. It is what it is. The road to the Super Bowl now runs through a Starbucks.
The good news? New Orleans will play in an even bigger game Sunday, and there is absolutely no time to dwell on the past. The Panthers are terrorizing the NFL right now and this game will spark the domino effect that will end the musical chairs game atop the NFC once and for all.
Carolina boasts arguably the best front seven in all of football and will pose a lot of the same problems the Saints struggled with Monday night. Cam Newton is just as slippery as Russell Wilson. Carolina’s defensive line will no doubt cause a rocky Saints’ O-line problems. And that secondary will look to bully its way into chaos against a vulnerable New Orleans wide receiving corps. If the Saints aren’t careful, this season’s goals could break down faster than the team plane.
But these are the moments this organization has lived for in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era - a prime time home game against a fierce division rival hell-bent on sending Who Dat Nation careening off a cliff with a wink and a smile. The stakes are high. The stage is set. And the Saints are entering from stage left, right smack dab off one of the worst losses in recent history. If this were a test, it would be Honors Organic Chemistry at Harvard.
Payton won’t be able to silence all the critics Sunday, and rightfully so. People will still guffaw at the Saints’ road record this year, pointing out all the reasons why his squad will never win in the cold, or away from home, or without major tweaks to a couple of very important positions. But he can prove that the Seattle loss wasn’t the start of a downward spiral. It could be the spark that lights the firecracker.
Monday showed that the Saints can be corralled. Sunday will show if the Saints can break away from the ropes.