The New Orleans Saints did their job in Week 17, ending the season with a decisive 33-7 win over the Carolina Panthers. In turn, they secured the No. 2 seed and will face off against the Chicago Bears in the Wild Card Round this Sunday.
While there was a possibility the Saints could clinch the No. 1 seed, fate ultimately rested in the hands of Chicago; the Bears and Seattle Seahawks both needed a win for New Orleans to get the first-round bye. That doesn’t take away from a resolute victory by a team that suffered the loss of an entire starting position group, and a clear, resounding reminder that the Saints will always find a way to win. Let’s get to it.
The Good: No Starters, No Problems
Let’s unfold the laundry list of starters the Saints were without on Sunday:
The Saints will be without all of these players today: pic.twitter.com/hZWeUPZvdt— Amie Just (@Amie_Just) January 3, 2021
While the Broncos game may have proved the paramount role of the quarterback, Alvin Kamara proved the invaluableness of an elite running back just last Friday. And just one week after amassing an NFL record-tying 6 rushing touchdowns, New Orleans lost him.
And then they lost the entire running back room along with him. None of this even mentions the continual absence of Michael Thomas, nor the loss of both starting safeties, Marcus Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson, to injury and the reserve/COVID-19 list, respectively. Ty Montgomery — a champion in his own right in helping a Louisiana native battle leukemia — truly said, “no worries. I got this.”
This game was a microcosm of the Saints season; emblematic of the entire year was this decisive victory, despite unforeseen adversity, to ultimately end 12-4. I wrote an article during the offseason about the competitive advantage New Orleans held when it came to unprecedented challenges; paramount to the edge held by the Saints was the Brees-Payton relationship.
While most teams flourish in a season devoid of adversity (while achieving continual success), this sense of complacency is ultimately the Saints kryptonite – as recently illustrated in Week 14. When the odds are stacked against them, Payton and Brees are at their best. Today’s win proved no different.
Really, this entire season serves as a reminder: to ever count out the Saints is criminal. Have the San Francisco 49ers suffered an unprecedented, incomparable level of injury? Absolutely. This doesn’t detract from the notion that New Orleans persevered to its fourth consecutive NFC South Title victory and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs – one that would have a bye in literally every other year – with Drew Brees and Michael Thomas on the field together for just 10 quarters.
Wrote down in my notes while watching: This is one of the reasons guys around the league want to play for Payton. He'll absolutely go for this as long as it's not going to cost his team a chance to win. https://t.co/Q7kxq3G30U— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) January 4, 2021
Never was there a more perfect reaction to an incentive-triggering play by a more deserving player. If I had an MVP on offense this season, it would be Emmanuel Sanders. It took him just about four games to perfect the intricacies and footwork of the Saints offensive playbook; he ascended past any expectations as a solid second-option behind Thomas.
The level of play Sanders has consistently performed at just makes the brief glimpses of Thomas back in the offense this season hurt that much more. We were genuinely robbed of a full-throttle offensive weaponry with a Thomas-Sanders duo this season. That just makes the possibility of a timely Thomas return that much more enticing.
Add in, say, the entire room of running backs, Deonte Harris, Tre’Quan Smith, and the Saints have a very lethal set of tools at their disposal. If this is how they perform on idle – let’s be honest, the scoreboard watching in multiple games was palpable – with a depleted offense, a fully-healthy offense may just be enough for New Orleans to push back to the Super Bowl.
In the last 10 seasons the Saints have:— Jeff Asher (@Crimealytics) January 4, 2021
Gone 13-3 without getting a bye twice
Been a 2-seed who doesn't get a bye
Regretted the existence of Bill Vinovich
The Bad: Losing the Bye
Rule changes aside, the Saints had the first-round bye, and they lost it. Enough said. I can butter up the Week 14 loss with mental grit and resilience as meaningful takeaways, but that loss ultimately took away a free-pass New Orleans desperately could have used.
Take out the running back room depletion. This still doesn’t change the potency of the offense, and corresponding limitations of such, depending on the presence of Michael Thomas. We saw with him this season what rushing a player back early does to said player. What happens if Thomas is a game-time decision?
Any sane person would argue that you play him. I’m hard-pressed to agree. Is he necessary to win the Wild Card round? I would argue not. Is he necessary to win the Super Bowl? Absolutely. On the one hand, you can’t get there without winning the Wild Card round; you simply don’t sit a player like Michael Thomas in the playoffs.
On the other hand, suppose this weekend is cutting it awfully close for his wholly unknown return trajectory. Thomas is going to play if he can play. New Orleans will play Thomas if he can play. But just because he can, doesn’t necessarily he should, nor that this week was the planned point of return.
An easy way to avoid making this decision would have been to avoid this weekend entirely. If the Saints just beat Philadelphia, they would have the No. 1 seed and resultant bye. It almost seems like the fall from grace is a requisite for the season; this loss, indeed, might have been a necessary evil for long-term success.
It doesn’t make it any less frustrating that destiny was once held in our hands, and our star player on offense could have certainly used the bye week.
#Saints RB/WR Ty Montgomery has one carry this season. He last had more than 3 carries on Dec. 8 while playing for the #Jets. He’ll probably get more tomorrow with Alvin Kamara… and all the other backs out.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 2, 2021
The Ugly: COVID-19
As encouraging as it is to see the continuous and creative ways the Saints find to win football games, things like this just cannot happen on the path to the Super Bowl.
We ultimately don’t know how Alvin Kamara incurred COVID-19. Kamara’s actions aside; past Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington, and Michael Burton, New Orleans placed safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and D.J. Swearinger, and GM Mickey Loomis, on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week.
That’s the largest number of Saints players on the reserve list all season. It was equal parts funny and alarming what happened to the Denver Broncos; the loss of the entire running back room easily could have cost New Orleans. In fact, with the Seattle win, a loss today would have cost the Saints the No. 2 seed. This outbreak still, in fact, may cost them.
If Kamara starts exhibiting symptoms tomorrow, he will be unable to play in the Wild Card game; a player who shows symptoms after testing positive can return after at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared. The same is true for C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Both players are critical for a postseason berth.
New Orleans can’t withstand a last-season crumble to COVID-19; no team could. This season, staying healthy is not limited to game-related injuries. The challenge to persevere includes surmounting such outbreaks.
While “Prove Them Right” has a better ring to it, “Stay the Hell Inside” might prove paramount for the Saints success. That, and avoiding any outbreaks in a position unit Taysom Hill takes snaps in – talk about a Swiss Army Spreader.
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