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Saints Week 15: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Equal parts optimism and points of concern to be found in the New Orleans Saints loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints, despite valiant effort, fell to 10-4 in Sunday’s 32-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. We saw the return of Drew Brees, but the lack of competent counterparts, in tandem with his clear still injured-status, led to a highly ineffective offensive showing.

Two consecutive losses after a nine-game winning streak is hard to swallow. But, we should have been bracing for this since Brees suffered 11 rib fractures and a punctured lung five weeks ago. The fact that he’s even back on the field this early is equal parts alarming and just absolutely mind-blowing. Despite all this, this is potentially the most promising Saints loss of recent seasons.

The Good: Chiefs (Barely) Win Big, but It’s Not Easy

If this game was told solely by stats, the 3-pt difference in this loss is inexplicable. The 41:14 time of possession by Kansas City alone is absurdly lopsided. And yet, it was just a 3-pt loss, by a Saints team operating at 60%, with a gameplan that revealed no cards.

There are many things to be taken away from this football game. The most important, is that a healthy Brees-led Saints team with even the Week 7 offense and Week 15 defense beats the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

Was Kansas City at 100%? Their offensive line was a glaring liability. Past that, this was easily a Chiefs team operating at around 90%. It’s unquestionable that Kansas City entered this matchup the far superior opponent. Not only did Patrick Mahomes look human on nearly every play, short of one insane third-down conversion, but both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce (who combined for 121 total yds) had notably mediocre games. All of that credit duly rests with the Saints defense.

Without heavy blitzing, the pass rush was insanely efficient; the 41.4% PCT pressure rate on non-blitzes was the highest by any team against Mahomes in his NFL career. This pressure and aggressive front-four held Mahomes under 300 yards for the first time in 6 weeks, sacked him a season-high four times – including a sack-fumble – and hit him 11 times.

Mahomes recorded his second-lowest completion percentage and passer rating of the season, with the worst being the Chiefs singular season loss. Most importantly, perhaps, was the fact that 60-minutes of regulation transpired with no blown coverage plays against the NFL’s top offense; Mahomes’ long for the day was 23 yards.

There were so many third downs that no quarterback besides Mahomes converts; his ability to extend plays is unprecedented. It’s about as much as you could ask for from our defense in this matchup. This defense, in comparison to previous years, appears unwaveringly resilient. For once, it matches its counterpart in Drew Brees.

Well, a Drew Brees not held together by cyborg gameday apparel, internal tape, and the will of higher powers. We learned Sunday that New Orleans has two vastly different tiers of nameless receivers; compared to this showing, the corp we had weeks ago could be considered elite.

New Orleans makes a deep playoff run, and strongly contends in the Super Bowl, with Michael Thomas; in the event he can’t return, they even out that shot with Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway, and Tre’Quan Smith.

The under-usage of Taysom Hill stood out in the midst of Sunday’s offensive failures. Not only was he effective on consecutive downs with (what should have both been) a rushing touchdown, but he also gave us a chance on several of those third downs by virtue of his legs alone. It became clear early on that the only competent receiver was Emmanuel Sanders, and he was promptly shut down in double coverage; Kansas City knew Brees had no options. They also knew that there was no chance he would rush up the interior, which allowed them to hang airtight on our non-threatening receivers. With four games under his belt now, the same cannot be said for Hill under center.

Perhaps the plan was to let Brees shake the rust off, outcome aside; just as Hill reportedly was told by Payton in the offseason that in the event of a Brees multi-game injury, he’d get the start outright, the same could be said for keeping Brees under center all game.

Or, this was wholly intentional for entirely different reasons. This very well was a Super Bowl preview. A fully healthy offense would obviously be ideal, but I have a bad feeling about the IR-happy receiving corp this season. That said, legitimately anything more than what we had Sunday, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is a massive upgrade. Just as the Broncos game gave us zero intel on Hill’s abilities, the Saints gave the Chiefs absolutely nothing to work with in potential future preparations.

Should injuries leave our offense this ineffective, and we skate through the playoffs by the skin of our teeth, Sunday made it clear that Hill can potentially be a true X-factor in such a close, evenly-matched game. Under this lens, the restraint of Hill almost feels intentional.

Ultimately, when you consider the amount of widespread unit injuries, dropped passes, questionable calls, loss of Cameron Jordan for nearly the entire 4th quarter, a rusty quarterback who arguably had no business playing behind a battered o-line, and the opponent, the fact that this came down to a field goal difference is frankly incredible.

The Saints likely lose the No. 1 seed with Sunday’s outcome, but they should gain exponentially more confidence about the potential of this team at full-strength, and that this defense is debatably the strongest of the 21st century.

The Bad: Jared Cook

A fully healthy Drew Brees is unlikely to find necessary success with what we ended with as Sunday’s supporting cast: a perpetually double-covered Emmanuel Sanders, a barely used Kamara, Lil’Jordan Humphrey in his first NFL start, TommyLee Lewis (shudder), Juwan Johnson, and an entirely ineffective Jared Cook. As a league veteran and two-season starter, Cook’s performance was nothing short of disappointing.

I have tried hard to cut Cook slack for what feels like far too long now; he was awarded leniency last season with the midseason Brees injury and own preseason injury that stifled their chemistry. We started to see his value in Week 9. Then, it promptly dissipated at the start of this season. The entire offense was out of sync, and it didn’t feel entirely fair to place that much weight on a few drops and poor routes in light of our performance as a whole.

It took Emmanuel Sanders about four weeks to do what Cook just has not done in two seasons now. This is the type of game where veterans like Demario Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, and Sanders or Cook on offense need to step up.

A 1-11 third down conversion rate for the Saints on offense is just putrid. This is where Thomas’ absence stands out; as much as his slant plays are poked fun at, said plays are incredibly effective on short third downs. This used to be a heavily featured New Orleans down that favored tight ends. Jeremy Shockey would get exactly one yard past the down line, turn around, catch the ball, and promptly sit down. Jimmy Graham was a mismatch monster; purportedly, so was Cook.

Of Sunday’s 10 failed conversions, 6 were for five yards or less. The only successful third down? The 51-yd completion to Emmanuel Sanders, after which he was promptly given the Michael Thomas treatment. This is when the only remaining veteran player on the receiving roster needs to step up; it’s not asking much in Week 15 of in the season.

Instead, he dropped three of his five targets, racked in 29 total yards, and so egregiously under-ran a route on a 3rd & 6 late in the third quarter that resultantly incurred an intentional grounding penalty on Brees.

Brees not only confronted Cook immediately on the sidelines, but sought him out a second time to go over the play in specific. He also appeared to do so quite calmly, unlike Tom Brady throwing his helmet. Cook’s reaction — though in fairness, this is ultimately viewer speculation — disappointingly appeared somewhat reactive.

Drew Brees rarely yells at players. The last I can genuinely remember was two sentences towards Jeremy Shockey in 2009. If he’s this outwardly perturbed at Cook’s performance, the criticism likely is deserved. Cook is not the reason we lost, but he easily could have been the reason we won Sunday.

The Ugly: The Likely Loss of the No. 1 Seed, and Nothing but Injuries to Show for It

The Chiefs won because their quarterback is Patrick Mahomes. The Saints weren’t winning or losing this game because of, or in spite of, Drew Brees. After watching the gameplan twice over, it ultimately was not a winning one by the usage of the tools at our disposal.

Drew Brees was not fully healthy, and likely should have sat this one out. There was no attempt to offset his limitations or compensate. Kamara was rarely used; as previously mentioned, Hill’s rushing threat abilities were all but forgotten.

There is no avenue for success in easing back a quarterback who’s admittedly not 100%, who debatably had no business being in this football game, with a receiving corp of practice squad receivers with no experience nor ability to find a modicum of separation.

In his post-game presser, Sean Payton, rightly so, asserted they did the “smart thing” with Michael Thomas on resting him until the playoffs. In Sunday’s broadcast coverage, it was mentioned that Payton doesn’t think the Saints can win the Super Bowl without a healthy Michael Thomas. That feels slightly untrue, depending on the state of the rest of the team; but he very well might be right.

Still, why does it feel like we prioritized the health of Michael Thomas, but needlessly risked the health of Brees with an entirely unsupportable cast? It just feels reckless, even in hindsight where he managed to survive. New Orleans likely can’t catch Green Bay for the No. 1 seed. Brees showed in his two-minute drive that he has the ability to turn it on when needed no matter what.

New Orleans had three key players suffer injuries in Sunday’s game: Tre’Quan Smith, who left and didn’t return, Marcus Williams who suffered a low-ankle sprain, and an unknown injury that sent Trey Hendrickson to the medical tent. There were a few scares with C.J. Gardner-Johnson. We entered this matchup with our top receiver on IR, two additional starting receivers, had an in-game injury to a shockingly tough Andrus Peat, and our other starting guard out with a concussion.

Every hit that Drew Brees took Sunday was one too many. Self-preservation needs to trump seeding after this loss. We ultimately can’t be banking on the incredibly elusive first-round bye at this rate. Sean Payton needs to create it himself. We need to do the right thing here, which is the “smart thing” universally.

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