Heading into Sunday’s matchup with the 4-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there were about a dozen scenarios that could have played out for the Saints that would have determined their playoff seeding and their opponent for round one of the NFL playoffs. However, one scenario was clear, the 11-win Saints had no shot at the No. 2 seed and would be playing in the Wild Card round. The Saints were either going to fall into one of three possible landing spots; the 3rd, 4th, or 5th Seed in the NFC playoffs, with the worst-case scenario meaning they would not host a playoff game.
I had a sneaky suspicion that the Saints would fall to the seemingly harmless Bucs. The Buccaneers had all the makings of a good spoiler team, but I did not want to be correct. However, looking at the current route to Super Bowl LII, I must say, the road feels a little less bumpy and could lead to some major success.
Based on the Saints’ play against the Buccaneers, I would have to agree with Nola.com writer Larry Holder and say that the Saints offense is going through a bit of a lull at a very inopportune time. Some may argue that it was not the offense, but our depleted defense that allowed Jameis Winston to go on a 95-yard game-winning drive in the waning moments of the 4th quarter that led to the Buccaneers upsetting the favored Saints. The counter-argument would be that had the offense been able to sustain the drive prior to that game-winning drive the Saints and their fans would be feeling a little different today.
A season-long problem raised its ugly head on that drive, the Saints being unable to sustain drives in critical moments. As I’m watching the games this season, I cringe every 3rd down. Even on 3rd and short, to be honest. The Saints simply have not been able to consistently convert on 3rd downs. According to ESPN, the Saints are tied with the Cleveland Browns for 26th in the league in made 3rd down conversions, converting on only 37% percent on 3rd downs.
Granted, the Saints offense is in no way a horrible unit, perennially they are a top 5 unit, and this season is no exception as they led the NFC this season in total yards per game and rank in the top 5 in the league in most offensive statistical categories. However, to say that this offensive unit is just as efficient and should instill just as much confidence on third down as the 2009 (44.7%, 3rd down conversion), 2011 (56.7%), or 2013 (43.9%) units would be a bit of a stretch.
This Saints team is good, some may argue really good, but not dominant. Even at home, they are not running teams out of the building, per se, but they have been winning. Therefore, I believe this team is matchup based, and they match up very well with the two teams most believe they will face on their way to what would be their third NFC Championship game appearance.
Losing to the Bucs and having the hated Falcons take out the Panthers may serve as the beginning of a beautiful story that Saints fans share with their kids for years to come. Saints fans everywhere know that after the 0-2 start, this season appeared to be headed for disaster. The losses were ugly, fans were in dismay, and the team both offensively and defensively seemed to be in disarray. Adrian Peterson was staring daggers at Sean Payton, Willie Snead was gone, the offensive line was in shambles and the offense was sputtering. Against the Saints defense, Sam Bradford looked like Tom Brady and Tom Brady looked like the second coming of Jesus Christ, and there was literally no hope on the horizon.
Then, along came Cam Newton and the 2-0 Panthers. The Saints marched into Carolina, and it seemed that all the hope and promise that the preseason provided was on full display, as the Saints handed the Panthers a 34-13 beat down on the road. At that point in the season, even if it turned out to be a fluke, it was a rose growing through concrete for a frustrated and desperate fanbase.
By the second time the Saints faced the Panthers, almost everything was different. The Saints offense found an identity with the trade of Adrian Peterson, being able to unleash the dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara onto the league. The offensive unit looked different from the pass-happy offense of yesteryear, but it was clearly a problem the Panthers would have to deal with correctly or suffer the consequences. The defense had found its footing and began to feast on quarterbacks as opposed to making them look like demigods. The New Orleans Saints fans went from praying for signs of hope to having huge expectations.
After a humbling 26-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12, the Saints were in need of a win if they were going to take back sole possession of first place in the NFC South. The Saints once again found hope against the Panthers. Rookie sensation Alvin Kamara was remarkable, racking up two touchdowns, including a statement-making 2-yard touchdown bouncing off a sure-tackle at the goal line. Ingram had a great day as well, totaling 85 yards and a touchdown. Even wide receiver Willie Snead, who was still “missing” heading into the matchup, made an appearance with a big catch on a much-needed drive.
Overall, the offense moved almost unimpeded through the Carolina defense, while the Saints defense was able to frustrate Panthers’ offense and limit quarterback Cam Newton. The Saints were in full control of the contest, and beat them 31-21.
If the Saints would have beat the Bucs and the Panthers beat the Falcons (and the Seahawks beat the Cardinals) — seeing the Falcons eliminated from the playoffs — while holding the NFC South crown would have been incredible for fans. There would have been no end to the memes and berating of the Falcons and their hated fans. The Saints would be getting ready to face a tough, but beatable Seahawks team and their quarterback “Magic Man” Russell Wilson.
While Seattle has noticeable flaws and a depleted roster, I still believe that the Saints match up better with the Panthers. The Panthers offense, outside of Cam Newton, lacks experienced, elite, and explosive playmakers. While that has not been a problem for Newton in the past, when facing the blitz-often Saints defense this season it seems to be an issue.
It is true that Carolina was without a fully healthy Greg Olsen in the last battle, but the Saints defense is still better suited to face the Panthers offense. While some would say their defense is a good unit, the fact remains that their secondary lacks a shutdown corner or a player that strikes fear in opposing offenses. The secondary lacks an Earl Thomas, per se. If the Saints are able to overcome what seems like a myriad of injuries on defense this is a very winnable playoff game for the Saints.
Based on the current playoff picture, the road to Super Bowl LII would seemingly go through Philadelphia. With that being said, with a Saints victory, if the Rams, who recently lost a shocker to the newly scary San Francisco 49ers, were to also lose to the surging Falcons, then Sean Payton’s squad would be headed to Minnesota. However, most believe the Rams will beat the Falcons. According to Oddsharks.com, the Falcons head to L.A. as a 10-point underdog.
If the oddsmakers are indeed correct, the Saints will be headed to play a “headed in the wrong direction” Eagles team, led by backup turned starting quarterback Nick Foles. Foles has struggled mightily as of late, and a pressure-based Saints defense would present a strong challenge to the Eagles offense. I believe we can cross that bridge when we get there, but it is not one Saints fans are particularly scared to cross.
Therefore, this path to at least the NFC Championship game seems to be the best possible route. I believe it is better than having to face the Seahawks, as I stated earlier. It is also better than having to face the Falcons for the second time in 3 weeks, and the third time in less than a month. Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, and Devonta Freeman present a much scarier matchup for the depleted Saints defense than Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and Devin Funchess.
If the Saints were to lose to the Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday, then the benevolent Ron Rivera-led squad would essentially take back all the hope that they have given Saints fans this season. New Orleans and its fanbase would be disappointed, but most would truly appreciate the unexpected success the team has enjoyed this season. It has been a remarkable ride. However, based on our current path to Super Bowl LII, the Saints are setup to make this season unforgettable.