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New Orleans Saints Wild Card round: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

With a Wild Card victory over the Chicago Bears, the New Orleans Saints advance to the Divisional round to take on Tom Brady, round three.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Aptly in tune with the series title, the New Orleans Saints pulled off an ugly 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears in the NFC Wild Card round. In turn, the team is set to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a third time this season in the Divisional round next Sunday. We’ll always have the strangest Wild Card memories of all time, brought to you by Nickelodeon.

Fans expecting an offensive juggernaut from Brees, Thomas, and Kamara were likely fairly disappointed; apparently, Sunday’s aerial duel was destined for the Cleveland Browns. In New Orleans, we got a somewhat underwhelming slugfest.

It wasn’t always pretty, but a win is a win — especially in the playoffs. The final score certainly isn’t commensurate with fan anxiety levels, but ultimately, the Saints remained in the driver’s seat through the 60-minutes of regulation. Let’s get to it.

The Good: The Most Dominant Defense Since Dome Patrol

There has not been one defense in the Drew Brees era that could comfortably withstand seven points on offense in the first half of a playoff game.

I do not care that it’s Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Chicago Bears. Let’s not pretend this is too far removed from Kirk Cousins and the 10-6 Minnesota Vikings. Dominant doesn’t judiciously describe New Orleans defensive performance.

‘Prove Them Right’, read the slogan in the Saints practice facility in 2018. It certainly wasn’t a message to Drew Brees. It may have taken two subsequent heartbreak seasons, but this defense has heard it loud and clear.

If you take away the garbage time acrobat touchdown catch by Jimmy Graham on the final play, which you should, this unit conceded a field goal. To argue further, a field goal that only happened due to Hill’s fumble. Nonetheless, the 9 points scored by Chicago were the fewest allowed by New Orleans in a playoff game – ever. Perhaps studying offensive plays, rather than C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s trash-talk highlight reel, things may have transpired differently:

Despite averaging 102.9 rushing yards per game this season, the Bears had just 48 rushing yards on Sunday; Trubisky was contained to just 199 passing yards, 10 rushing, and a touchdown. The defense was steadfast, it was patient, adaptive, and – most importantly – disciplined. The Saints conceded zero first downs by penalty. While the number of offsetting penalties, scuffles, and F-bomb might fool you, all four of New Orleans penalties came on offense and special teams.

There was no tight end coverage issue. No palpable void left by Kwon Alexander – though his (painfully missed) presence may have made it a legitimate shutout. You can tell how much influence Malcolm Jenkins has had on the safety corp; perhaps not in etiquette classes, but there’s no sense of utter confusion or miscommunication in zone coverage. Janoris Jenkins was the utter steal of the century, and Marshon Lattimore continues to perfect his dominant closing argument for an extension.

This defense wins championships, and at the level of play we saw on Sunday, it may do exactly that.

The Bad: The Inability to Tell — Was This Game Intentional?

The playoff road only gets steeper from here on out. Sunday was a game to get the full Saints offense back in sync and re-familiarize the full arsenal. In full knowledge of that, why did it feel like the Bears were a Javon Wims dropped pass away from taking over this game?

A slow start on offense was to be expected. The band finally got back together with Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Deonte Harris on the field for the first time in several weeks. This didn’t make Sunday any easier to watch, nor does it entirely explain the level of stagnation in the first half.

Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. There was even a rare unsuccessful Brees Leap. On the other hand, for once, calls went in the Saints favor; for perspective, New Orleans had five first downs by penalties, and 8 by rushing attempts. At times, it just felt like the Bears frankly wanted it more.

The tide starkly turned with the Latavius Murray touchdown drive late in the third quarter. Prior to which, New Orleans failed to put any points on the board since the touchdown pass to Michael Thomas 10 minutes into the first quarter. With a 7-3 lead, and a stale offense, the team was saved by a neutral zone infraction after a third down pass to Jared Cook fell short.

Not only that, but the kids watching on Nickelodeon could tell that the Murray dump was not an intentional play. Nor would it have gone anywhere save for the insane level of work Murray put in within milliseconds:

This wasn’t a win that felt good per se. But it’s genuinely hard to tell whether the issues on offense were deep-seeded, temporary collateral damage while the offense had a tune-up, or straight up intentional.

There are certainly teeth to the argument that New Orleans knew they had this in the bag the entire game; they never relinquished the lead, controlled time of possession at 38:58 with 75 plays, put Deonte Harris on the national map in the meantime, and stubbornly held firm in the conservative game play.

The Bears, kindly, were the lowest on the totem pole in terms of upcoming opponents. While never underestimating them, it felt like the Saints kept their cards close to their chest. One has to consider the mentality of Payton here; he’s first and foremost playing to win the football game, but there’s always a larger game of chess. How do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game plan from what unfolded on the New Orleans offense?

I’m half-convinced that this was a troubling resurfacing of the lethargic offense trend in the postseason, and half-convinced this was partially fueled by mind games.

Fullback Michael Burton had the same number of targets as Alvin Kamara – two each. Jared Cook tied his season-high number of targets with 7, despite having the full offensive arsenal back on the field. Deonte Harris, who had six total targets in 2019, and three or less in six of the nine games he’s played this season, was the team’s leading receiver with 7 receptions for 83 yards – in his first game back from IR.

On the rushing end, despite nearly a season-low number of targets, Kamara ran for a career-high 23 carries for 99 yards. Meanwhile, despite the prowess and football intelligence displayed in the highlighted play above, Latavius Murray was all but invisible with 4 carries for 9 yards. Then there’s the puzzling usage of Taysom Hill that is just too much to unpack.

The Saints were keenly aware they’d face Tampa Bay if they advanced to the divisional round – for a third time this season. This is all before mentioning the complete primetime embarrassment in Week 9. Or, as coddled by Skip Bayless, a case of Antonio Brown “growing pains”:

Brady is undoubtedly locked in on a Revenge Tour; not only that, but his playoff record more than speaks for itself. The Buccaneers will certainly implement a game plan more conducive to winning with more than five rush attempts. This game will look nothing like the respective 38-3 score on either end. However, any attempts to derive meaning, or discern the strategy behind the current Saints offense from this game, will be quite futile.

We still have no idea what Emmanuel Sanders and Michael Thomas look like in tandem. Suddenly, Deonte Harris demands possibly double-coverage attention. Despite his assistance in the passing game in Week 17, Marquez Callaway saw zero receptions in the Wild Card game. Per a postgame slip from Deonte Harris, as reported by Katherine Terrell of The Athletic, Tre’Quan Smith is set to potentially return from IR.

With that perspective, now consider: what can you genuinely take away from this game? Absolutely nothing. It’s hard to feel that isn’t deliberate.

The Ugly: Wil Lutz

The first-half offense wasn’t the only unit the defense bailed out. I genuinely despise calling out kickers; the psyche of the position is severely underrated. As is the absolute vitriol in response to a missed field goal (rather than towards, say, the collective team whose loss was decided by a field goal). Not only is it typically unjustly piled on, but it gets just plain revolting at times.

It’s time to officially address Wil Lutz. Through the first 11 weeks of the season, Lutz was 20 of 22 on field goal attempts, with three kicks for 40 yards or more. Since then, he’s missed four of his last seven attempts.

Is it a case of the yips? A hidden injury? As John Sigler of Saints Wire noted, ironically, Lutz received medical attention in the Week 8 game against the Bears, and hasn’t looked right since. More than that, the initial miss in Philadelphia in Week 14 looked like a potentially tweaked hamstring; at this point, that could be the origin, or an aggravation of an earlier injury from the Chicago game. Lutz has not been listed on the Saints daily injury report, but the stark decline is blatant.

This isn’t something a team can surmount in the playoffs; these games oftentimes come down to a field goal-difference. Sure, Sunday’s miss was from 50-yards out. If the previous misses and clear downward trend hadn’t occurred, he’d probably escape the majority of heat. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. What is the case is the current mystery.

Keen observers have likely taken notice that the Saints have been courting both Blair Walsh and Chandler Catanzaro; the team held a tryout and visited with each free agent kicker independently. The touted reasoning, which likely holds a level of truth, is to provide depth in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak. The timing, however, remains a bit suspicious, and Lutz’s recent struggles are plainly obvious.

Saints fans have learned to cope with blown coverage touchdowns, egregious no-calls, and a crumbling offense. An area yet to be broached in the past several years is coping with a playoff loss decided by a missed field goal. Let’s not add that to the arsenal, shall we?

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