Let’s get this out of the way first: No, I do not think that the New Orleans Saints purposefully lost their Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, that hasn’t stopped a lot of football fans from speculating otherwise. So let’s put on our tin foil hats and look at possible motivations for allowing the Buccaneers to score the go-ahead touchdown with just seconds left in regulation.
It was no secret that the Los Angeles Rams were throwing their Week 17 game against the 49ers. They rested the majority of their big-name starters on both sides of the ball (Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Donald just to name a few) and allowed the 49ers to double-up on them 34-13. But this wasn’t just a meaningless loss for the Rams. If the Rams won the game, they were guaranteed the #3 seed in the NFC. If the Rams lost and the Saints won (a game the Saints were heavily favored to win), then it would be the Saints who would jump to the 3-seed with the Rams one spot below at #4.
But why would the Rams jeopardize their seeding?
Rumor has it that the Rams believe the #4 seed to actually be an easier route to the Super Bowl. If both home teams win in the Wild Card Round of the NFC playoffs, it would be the #3 seed forced to travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings’ vaunted defense while the #4 seed would face the Philadelphia Eagles - a team that has looked like a shell of its former self with Nick Foles at Quarterback.
Yes, the #3 seed would be more likely to host an NFC Championship Game than the #4 seed if both teams got that far, but that was a calculated risk that the Rams were willing to take - a potential cake-walk in the Divisional Round with your fingers crossed that another team is able to knock off the Vikings along the way.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That’s assuming that the #3 and #4 seeds each win their first playoff game at home.
The #3 seed in the NFC would face the #6 seed in the NFC Wild Card Round. The #4 seed would therefore host the #5 seed. The teams that would occupy 4, 5 and 6 were all up in the air come Sunday morning. The Carolina Panthers were playing in Atlanta to face the Falcons in a game that had major implications for playoff seeding. If the Falcons lost but the Seahawks were able to beat the Arizona Cardinals (a team whose offense was still without both Carson Palmer and David Johnson), then the Seattle Seahawks would sneak into the playoffs as the #6 seed over the Falcons.
Now, the Seahawks would go on to lose to the Cardinals by a close final score of 26-24, but it wouldn’t matter anyway if the Falcons won. If Falcons won, they would be assured the #6 seed in the NFC, subsequently locking the Panthers in at #5. That would therefore make the New Orleans Saints win the NFC South by default as it would have taken a Saints loss and and a Panthers victory over the Falcons for Carolina to take the division crown. The 49ers had a victory over the Rams well in hand by the start of the 4th quarter. A Saints win would therefore allow New Orleans to leapfrog the Rams into the #3 seed and host Atlanta. If they lost, they stay at #4 and would instead host Carolina.
By the time the Buccaneers took the ball on their final drive of the game, the entire scenario above was virtually locked in. The Rams had just scored against the 49ers, but it was still a three-possession game in the 49ers’ favor late in the 4th Quarter. The Panthers had just turned the ball over to the Falcons for the second drive in a row and the Falcons were in victory formation to run out the clock.
To say that the Saints coaching staff was unaware of what was going on around the NFC at this point would just be naive. Sean Payton had to know that the division was already locked up when the Buccaneers took the ball after the two-minute warning. He had to know that a loss against the Buccaneers would mean his team would get to face a Carolina Panthers team that he had already beaten twice this season, by a combined differential of 31 points. Then, if the odds-makers were to be followed and L.A. beat the Falcons, he had to know that would set his team to play their road Divisional game against the floundering Eagles. On the other hand, if his team won, the Saints would travel to the Vikings in the second round, to a stadium and against a team the Saints have already lost to back in Week 1. Even still, just to get to that second round, the Saints would have to beat the Atlanta Falcons, a team the Saints split the season-series with and have already played twice in the past four weeks. Sean Payton had to know this.
So what happened?
The Saints could still be winners of the division and able to host a playoff game. The Saints could have the opportunity to face the Carolina Panthers, who obviously struggled mightily in their Week 17 game against the Falcons. The Saints could see a path to the NFC Championship Game that involved playing against the Philadelphia Eagles, a team without their starting QB and MVP-candidate Carson Wentz, in the second round.
All they had to do was let the Buccaneers win. Then the Rams’ decision to throw their final game would be for nothing.
So, again, what happened?
We all know what happened. The Buccaneers scored the go-ahead touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion to go up by 7 points with 9 seconds left to go in the game. Then, with two seconds left, Michael Thomas goes out of bounds for a gain of only 7 yards.
I’m not saying the Saints let the Buccaneers win at the end. But I don’t think they’re all that bothered by the outcome.