Unexpected season opening loss has Saints fans looking forward to better days
Head coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints will seek redemption against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday after a 48-40 opening day loss to NFC South division rival Tampa Bay.
The Saints were expecting redemption. Instead their stay in Purgatory continued.
New Orleans was dealt the cruelest of blows at the end of the 2017 season. Just as it looked like the team had punched its ticket to the NFC Championship game, the Minnesota Vikings conjured a miracle with a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of the teams’ divisional round matchup.
All through the offseason, the news surrounding the Saints was positive. Running back Alvin Kamara was named offensive rookie of the year, while cornerback Marshon Lattimore won defensive rookie of the year honors. Quarterback Drew Brees, the best player to wear the black and gold, signed a two-year contract extension, keeping him at the helm of one of football’s most potent offenses. Through the draft and free agency, it looked like the team was stacked. It appeared there was finally depth on both sides of the ball. The Saints were often mentioned in prognosticators’ picks as one of the NFL’s top teams.
When the 2018 season kicked off last Sunday, the team and its fans appeared as if the regular season was a formality. Surely both were preparing for the likelihood that the team would be wrapping up the season with a trip to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. The first matchup was against division rival Tampa Bay, the only team in the NFC South that didn’t make the playoffs last season, which was without its starting quarterback due to a three-game suspension.
The Saints took first possession of the ball and marched up the field with a drive that culminated in a trick play with Taysom Hill in a quarterback and Brees lining up as a receiver. Hill, of course, handed the ball to Kamara, who scored a touchdown on a five-yard run.
The Saints were marching. Or so it seemed.
Exactly two minutes after New Orleans’ first touchdown of the budding season, the Buccaneers scored a touchdown on a long-developing play that saw backup Tampa quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick turn from journeyman to talisman with a 58-yard bomb that torched the Saints’ secondary to tie the score. It was the first of four touchdowns and a field goal the Bucs would score in the first half. The one that hurt the most, however, was after newly signed running back Mike Gillislee fumbled in the second quarter allowing Tampa cornerback Justin Evans to scoop and score a 34-yard TD.
The Saints were able to stay in the fight with three touchdowns and a field goal. At the half, the Buccaneers held a 31-17 lead. But the pregame mood in the Superdome soured as all involved realized Tampa was not going to be a pushover and a slugfest had erupted in place of a coronation.
In the second half, Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers kept going, adding a pair of touchdowns and a field goal, while the Saints were only able to muster two touchdowns and two two-point conversions.
Tampa Bay 48. New Orleans 40.
The stat line for the 35-year-old Fitzpatrick was shocking. He connected on 21 of 28 passing attempts for a 75 percent completion percentage, 417 yards, an average of 14.89 yards gained per attempt, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a near perfect QB rating of 156.3 (158.3 is a perfect score).
If there is any good news coming out of the opener, it’s that it’s just one game. The Saints are a game behind Tampa and Carolina and tied with Atlanta in the divisional race. Sure there was an opportunity lost, but there are 15 games to go. That’s plenty of time to turn things around, just like last year when they started the season with a beat down from the Vikings.
The offense remains one of the league’s best. Brees completed 37 of 45 passes for 439 yards, three touchdowns, and a 129.5 passer rating. Kamara had his first career-three touchdown game, two rushing and one receiving. Wide receiver Michael Thomas had a franchise-record 16 catches for 180 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Looking forward, the expectation for improvement will be on the defense. All three levels will have to be better if preseason predictions are to come true. The line needs to get more pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers need to be quicker and more effective. Most importantly, the secondary, which gave up five pass plays of at least 35 yards and seven of at least 20 yards in the first game, needs to tighten up.
Divine intervention, via the schedule makers, may be at hand for the Saints to prove the offseason hype correct. The Cleveland Browns, winless in their last 18 games, come to the Superdome on Sunday. The Browns tied the Pittsburgh Steelers on opening day. That result ended a 17-game losing streak, but they still haven’t won a game since Dec. 24, 2016. If the Saints are for real. They’ll need to extend Cleveland’s winless streak another week.