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Saints Stumble to NFC South Title, Now Face Familiar Foe in Playoffs First Round

The New Orleans Saints are your 2017 NFC South Champions

New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints fell short against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday, 31-24, to conclude their 2017 regular season. New Orleans still enters the playoffs as the 4th seed, and the NFC South champions, by virtue of Atlanta's defeat of the Carolina Panthers. As a result, the Saints will host the Panthers in the NFC Wild Card round next Sunday afternoon.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints defense had a difficult time containing Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers offense all afternoon, giving up 455 total yards, 28 first downs, and allowing Tampa to convert 13 of 18 3rd down opportunities. New Orleans did intercept Winston three times, two by rookie safety Marcus Williams, but allowed the Buccaneers to drive 95 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with less than 2 minutes remaining. Although the Saints sacked Winston twice, and defensive ends Cam Jordan and George Johnson had nice moments on the afternoon, they weren't able to apply consistent pressure on the Tampa Bay passing game in key moments.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore played well in a physical rematch with Mike Evans, but the Saints never were able to find answers for Bucs wideouts Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin, who combined for 14 catches, 213 yards and the game winning score to Godwin. New Orleans again had a difficult time stopping the run, allowing Peyton Barber 71 yards on 17 rush attempts, and not able to contain Winston on some key scrambles.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Offensively, the Saints were unable to open up their lead during the game against a low ranked Buccaneers defense. Their third down conversion rate (6 of 12) was improved, but the offense still failed to convert at key moments. Rookie running back Alvin Kamara again starred, producing 138 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, and returning a 1st quarter kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown, a franchise record.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Thomas had a solid afternoon, catching six passes for 94 yards, including a spectacular 43-yd. reception to set up the Saints second touchdown of the game. Thomas finishes his second professional season with a franchise record 104 receptions, for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns. New Orleans continues to struggle with offensive production outside of stars Thomas, Kamara, and Mark Ingram, causing the offense to falter in some key moments not just during this game, but all season long. New Orleans made two fatal mistakes on special teams during the game. One was a fake field goal attempt by kicker Wil Lutz, and the other was a fumbled punt by Tommylee Lewis deep in Saints territory, which was returned for a Buccaneers touchdown.

Now it's on to the Carolina Panthers, who New Orleans defeated twice earlier this season. The Saints will enter this home playoff game as the favorite to move on to the next round, but as this loss showed, New Orleans will need to overcome it's season-long flaws to have a successful playoff run.

Until then, congratulations to the New Orleans Saints for a successful regular season. And from our family to yours, very Happy New Year wishes for 2018 and beyond!