Uncomfortably Numb

Another unexpected postseason exit leaves Saints, fans stunned
(AP Photo/Brett Duke)

 

For three straight seasons, the New Orleans Saints have been Super Bowl contenders, but have been sorely disappointed in the postseason. On Sunday, their season ended on the last play of the game, just like the previous two years. In 2017, they lost on a last-second touchdown after what appeared to be an easy game-winning tackle was missed. In 2018, it was a no call on an obvious pass interference late in the game that caused what looked like a sure ticket to the Super Bowl evaporated with an overtime field goal by the LA Rams. In 2019, another no call – this time Minnesota’s tight end pushing off a Saints defender to give himself just enough space to catch a game-winning TD in overtime.

While some might look at Kyle Rudolph’s push, draw parallels to last season, and say the Saints were shafted by the officials, the two games and instances cannot really be compared. The Saints deserved to win last year; they, simply, did not deserve to win yesterday. This result did not leave anger, but, rather, a lack of feeling.

I, and I assume many others in Who Dat? Nation, have become uncomfortably numb.

At the beginning of the game, it looked like New Orleans was ready to kick off Carnival a day early. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins caused Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen to fumble on the third play of the game. It looked like a dream start, but the Saints’ offense was held to a 29-yard field goal. The Vikings moved the ball on the next drive and tied the game at three.

In the second quarter, Taysom Hill had a run and 50-yard pass to wide receiver Deonte Harris, which set up a four-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara, giving the Saints a 10-3 lead. The Vikings scored another field goal on the ensuing drive, 10-6. In the next drive, age appeared to catch up with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was intercepted on a deep ball that hung too long in the air. On the resulting drive Minnesota turned the pick into a TD, 13-10 Vikings. The Saints closed out the half with Wil Lutz missing wide right on a 43-yard field goal attempt.

The third quarter was miserable for the Black & Gold. The Saints received the ball to open the second half and had a 6-play, 15-yard drive and punted. Next possession, three plays resulting in a one-yard loss, punt. On the third drive of the quarter, the team held the ball for three plays and gained two yards. The Vikings weren’t great in the third quarter, but scored a touchdown with 3:23 left to push the score to 20-10.

The Saints offense really didn’t seem to get going until the fourth quarter. Brees found Hill alone in the end zone for a 20-yard TD pass to cut the Vikings lead to three. The defense then held the Vikings to a six-play drive that gained 14 yards and forced a punt. With 6:49 left in the game, it looked like the stage was set for Brees to produce another of his signature come from behind wins. The Saints started on their own 29 yard line and began moving up field with dink and dunk passes before a 20-yard reception by Hill pushed the Saints to the Vikings 20. It looked as if the Saints had enough to put poor play behind them and take the lead, but the Vikings’ rush got to Brees. Vikings defender Danielle Hunter hit Brees’ upper right arm. The QB fumbled and Minnesota recovered. The Saints D held strong on the Vikings’ ensuing possession forced a punt after a six-play drive that netted a loss of three yards. With 1:55 left in the game, the Saints assumed possession and began driving again. With 21 seconds left, the Saints moved the ball to the Vikings’ 26 yard line. They tried to spike the ball to stop the clock, but were penalized for a false start. Pushed back to the 31, Brees threw an incompletion, and Lutz came on to tie the game at 20 with a 49-yard kick.

The Vikings won the toss and possession to start overtime. After a touchback gave them the ball at their 25, they launched a 75-yard drive, capped by Kyle Rudolph’s 4-yard, game-winning touchdown catch. Replays showed Rudolph pushed Saints cornerback P.J. Williams in the chest to create the space he needed to make the catch.

No Flag. No review. Game over. Season over.

 

Era over?

The end of the season has many questioning if this is the end of the line for Drew Brees. The quarterback, who turns 41 in a few days, is effectively a free agent and his future with the Saints is unclear. For the past several seasons, Brees has said he wants to play for as long as he is physically able. There’s no doubt that he is one of the smartest quarterbacks to play the game, and he’s insisted that his knowledge of the game and experience will help him maintain a high level of play. But questions about his physicality sprouted in the wake of yesterday’s defeat. His interception was an ill-advised, underthrown ball into double coverage. His fumble looked like it may have been caused by instability and lack of grip strength resulting from the thumb injury he sustained in Week 2.

Brees was coy about his plans for the future in the post-game press conference yesterday. His options include re-signing with the Saints, retiring, or – as unlikely as it seems – signing with another team.

The Saints have an amazingly talented core of players who can compete with the NFL’s top teams. That’s what’s so frustrating about the abrupt ending to this and the previous two seasons.

It feels like the Saints’ window to success – at least with Brees under center – is closing. That’s an unsettling position, especially in the win or go home NFL. Brees led the franchise to its highest points. He is beloved. No one wants to think about the day when he will no longer be under center for the Saints. But the days of Brees putting the team on his shoulders and carrying them to victory seem to be in the rearview mirror.

While some fans are calling for the team to move on from Brees, I still believe he gives the team the best chance to be successful. Yes, Bridgewater went undefeated in the five games he started, but the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was when Brees returned. Yes, Hill is exciting in his “Swiss Army Knife” role – yesterday he became the first NFL player to throw and run for 50 yards and have 25 receiving yards – yet I’m not sure he’s the answer. His 50-yard pass to Deonte Harris was on target, but underthrown. It should have been an easy touchdown, as Harris had easily beaten his defender, but he had to slow down and make a circus catch out of what should have been an easy reception.

If Brees does return, the Saints have to get him some additional help. The Falcons and Vikings showed the Saints have a weakness in their interior offensive line. Minnesota put pressure on the middle of the line and got to Brees consistently. The Saints have had limited options at receiver for multiple years and needs a reliable outlet at receiver to take pressure off of Brees and Michael Thomas. They’ll also, likely, need to find a new backup QB. Bridgewater played well in Brees’ absence and deserves the opportunity to be a starter in this league. He’s also making a ton of money – and eating up cap room – with his current salary. It’s doubtful both of these QBs will be on the roster come July.

If Hill is the answer, he needs a lot of offseason work to sharpen his passing game in order to gain the consistency needed at football’s top level.

 

Offseason volatility

Crashing out of the playoffs in three consecutive years has been excruciating. Yesterday, it seems the team believed all they had to do was go through the motions and they would advance. Their ego was checked in the worst way. There will be a lot of soul searching among players and coaches. Playoff – and, possibly, Super Bowl, wins were within reach, yet unattainable. At this point, Brees’ future will be the crux of the offseason. Hopefully he will give the team an answer sooner rather than later so that they can begin planning for next season – with or without him – as soon as possible.

No matter, without additional help, one has to wonder if the Saints are beginning to slide from the ranks of the elite teams to one of the league’s better teams.

It’s a shame we all have to suddenly wait until September to find the answer.

 

Categories: The Pennant Chase

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