Right up there with the “Minnesota Miracle,” the 2011 NFC Divisional Round game against the San Francisco 49ers is one of the most soul-sucking games of the Sean Payton Era for the New Orleans Saints and their fans.
The 2011 season for the New Orleans Saints will go down as one of the biggest lost opportunities of the franchise. The offense was electric. The Saints had 5 Pro Bowlers on offense that season: Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans, and Jermon Bushrod. Drew Brees slung the ball all season, passing for a then-NFL record 5,476 passing yards while also leading the league in completion percentage at 71.2%. He threw for an amazing 46 passing TDs while only totaling 14 interceptions.
And we’ve said Jimmy Graham went to the Pro Bowl, but this was his coming out party. He finished the year with 1,310 receiving yards, still the highest total of his career. The Saints also had a four-headed rushing attack with Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory, with the four combining for over 2,000 rushing yards, 13 rushing TDs, with another 1,100 yards in the air, and 8 receiving TDs. It was truly the Greatest Show on Turf.
The Saints dominated their way through the 2011 regular season to the tune of 13-3, winning the NFC South, but only the third best record in the NFC. The Saints finished behind the #1 seed Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers and the #2 seed, the former divisional rival San Francisco 49ers.
The Saints made quick work of the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs, dispatching of the Lions 28-45 in the Dome. Then came the divisional round matchup against the 2nd seeded San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick...
What if it had gone differently...?
The 49ers had just scored a touchdown and missed the 2-point conversion to go up 24-29 with under two minutes left in regulation. The Saints then took the lead on a touchdown and successful two point conversion, 32-29, with under a minute remaining, only to have their heart ripped out with 7 seconds left as Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis on a touchdown pass to seal the game for San Francisco.
But what if Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints is able to tackle Vernon Davis immediately after the catch? The 49ers would be on their own 49 yard line with only 37 seconds left in the game. They would have been forced to call their final timeout, with likely only a couple of chances to get into David Akers’s range. Akers made the Pro Bowl that year, but missed his only chances at field goals over 50 yards. If the 49ers can’t get at least twenty more yards (with no timeouts and half a minute on the clock), the 49ers don’t go on to win the game.
But then what? What happens with the Saints if they go on to the NFC Championship Game?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, that the Giants gave the Packers everything they could handle in the playoffs. In Week 13, the Green Bay Packers won 38-35 on a Mason Crosby field goal with 3 seconds left in the game to steal a victory on the road. But guess what happened one week earlier in Week 12? The New Orleans Saints demolished the Giants in New Orleans 24-49.
The Saints scored more than 40 points the last 5 games they played of the 2011 season (and postseason). On the other hand, the Giants failed to score 40 points any any point during a single time of the 2011 season and postseason. The Saints didn’t lose a single game at home during the 2011 regular season and postseason, and there would be no reason to think they wouldn’t beat the Giants in the divisional round in the Dome for the second time that year.
If you remember the 2011 Saints team, you’d probably remember that while they had a decent overall defense (13th overall), they were pretty poor against the pass (30th against the pass). And while you might think this means the Saints would not be able to hold up against Brady and the Pats, it’s not like the Giants were world-beaters. The G-Men were only one spot worse at 29th against the pass (and significantly worse as a team defense, 25th overall).
The biggest difference between the Saints and Giants? The offense we’ve already talked about. Remember: the Giants didn’t put up 40 points in a single game in 2011. The Giants had only the 9th best offense in 2011. The Patriots had the second. The top offense in 2011? Of course: your New Orleans Saints.
Once the Saints get past the Giants to advance to the Super Bowl, there would be no reason the Saints chances at winning Super Bowl XLVI isn’t - at worst - a toss up. It would be likely, though, that the Saints would enter as the favorites to win.
If Vernon Davis just tripped on his own shoelaces with 35 seconds left to go in the game on January 14, 2012, the Saints could have had two Lombardis in three years.
What could have been...