The strength of this New Orleans Saints team is its offensive line and two great running backs. That’s been evident all year as they propelled New Orleans into an eight-game winning streak and racked up all sorts of awards. An Atlanta Falcons defense that’s been vulnerable to lesser rushing attacks looked like a perfect punching bag for the Saints to secure their spot in the playoffs.
But all it took was a dirty hit from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones to make Alvin Kamara’s brain splatter against the inside of his skull for all that to go flying out the window. Kamara lurched off the field with a concussion and did not return. Despite tying the score or trailing by three points for most of the game, Saints head coach Sean Payton panicked and abandoned a smart game plan once Kamara was lost.
Payton made no effort to set the pace of the game. He neglected to use the formula that’s worked for months by letting the league’s best run-blocking offensive line get aggressive. The battered Saints defense intercepted Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan twice and forced a punt to start the second half, but Payton thought to have Mark Ingram run the ball only twice on those three possessions. The Saints came away with one score and two punts off of those free drives.
At the end of the day, Payton fell back onto his worst instincts. The Saints gained just 50 yards on the ground, their lowest in a calendar year (last failing to break 50 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 11, 2016). Payton ignored Drew Brees’ struggles to move the offense and elevate those around him, calling for 37 dropbacks to merely 15 carries. This loss is on those two pillars of the organization. Dennis Allen’s defense did its job in holding the Falcons to 20 points at home.
It’s too easy to blame this loss on officiating or injuries. Those factors played a big part, sure, but the Saints could have still won in spite of them. They lost eight of twenty-two starters by halftime. It’s really weird that Atlanta was awarded nine first downs off of penalties while New Orleans didn’t get a single free conversion. I’ve got a hard time buying that the Saints were three or four times as undisciplined as the Falcons last night.
A desperate Falcons defense smelled the blood in the water and made plays when they needed them. The Saints converted only three of their ten third downs and a stupidly-designed red zone play to tight end Josh Hill (who fumbled in a critical moment just last week) gifted the game away. The Saints have to be better if they want to make some noise in the playoffs, much less beat a surprisingly-feisty New York Jets team in a week.