Nobody likes to play Thursday night games. Teams aren’t rested enough, the games are often sloppy, and injuries occur frequently. Nevertheless, the NFL has found a lucrative TV market for them, so they must continue. The Saints had their annual Thursday night game last week, in Atlanta, and managed to nearly pull off a win despite a severe number of factors out of their control going the wrong way.
The Saints had a late-afternoon game against Carolina the previous week, meaning that they had roughly 96 hours in between games. (In the history of the expanded Thursday schedule, the Saints have played eight games, and six of them have come after a late Sunday game or a long road trip. Constantly being scheduled in this fashion only exacerbates the difficulties of playing on a short week.)
The Saints had a ridiculous run with injuries. The electric Alvin Kamara was hit in the head after a reception on the very first drive of the game and would not return after being diagnosed with a concussion. That’s why you’re only getting one big-play GIF of Kamara today, and it’s not even especially impressive, by his standards:
Losing his dynamic play hampered the Saints offense quite a bit, but it was merely the worst of a cavalcade of injuries that night. Over the course of the game, the following players were injured and were at least looked at for a period of time on the sideline: Kamara, Senio Kelemete, A.J. Klein, Trey Hendrickson, Ted Ginn, Kenny Vaccaro, Mark Ingram, Michael Thomas, David Onyemata, and Josh Hill. The first six missed significant snaps as a result; Kelemete was already filling in for Andrus Peat at guard, and Hendrickson has replaced Alex Okafor at defensive end after the latter went to injured reserve. Missing so much front-line talent will eventually wear down any team’s performance.
On top of that, Sean Payton’s complaints about the refereeing after the game were wholly justified. In a closely fought, tough game, penalties can make all the difference, and the Saints were flagged eleven times for 87 yards, as opposed to the home team’s four penalties for 35 yards.
Three penalties in particular stood out as game-altering:
- In the second quarter, after pressure forced Matt Ryan into an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-11, Sheldon Rankins was whistled for “roughing the passer” on a play where he pulled up and lightly touched Ryan, who fell to the ground. This could’ve easily gone uncalled, as Rankins did not follow through nor hit Ryan hard enough to possibly injure him, but the flag was thrown, and the Falcons took their 15 yards and first down, and eventually drove for a touchdown. That’s seven points they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
- At the end of the first half, with the Saints lining up to attempt a field goal, lineman Josh LeRibeus wasn’t quite on the line of scrimmage. For field goals, this is definitely a judgment call, as the rules allow for the seven on the line of scrimmage to be staggered somewhat. Normally in this case, when one lineman is staggered too far back, the referees will warn the team and allow them to correct the problem. This time, they didn’t, throwing a penalty flag for illegal formation. Wil Lutz’s field goal was good, but not only did the penalty wipe the points off the scoreboard, but coming in the last two minutes of the half, it included a ten-second clock runoff, which ran out the clock to halftime. The Saints wouldn’t get another opportunity to kick. That’s now seven points Atlanta got thanks to refereeing and three points New Orleans had taken away.
- On Atlanta’s final drive, where they needed one first down to seal the game, Sean Payton, already frustrated with the referees, was having trouble signaling a timeout and ran onto the field. Apparently the referees didn’t like that, or didn’t like something he said to them, because they flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct. Now, the Saints were down 20-17 at this point, and if they’d stopped Atlanta on third down, would’ve gotten the ball back with maybe 20 seconds left and no timeouts. So winning was a long shot to begin with. But the penalty reduced the Saints’ chances of a win from “infinitesimal” to “impossible.”
On the road, on short rest, already banged up, with a bunch of guys going down during the game, and the refereeing measurably affecting the outcome. How, then, did the Saints only lose by three, and not much more?
The biggest answer is that the defense rose up, aided by a bit of luck. Matt Ryan was intercepted on three straight drives. One of those was a tipped passed that bounced off a receiver’s hands, but Chris Banjo still made a heady to play to scoop it up. Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams made some excellent plays while covering Julio Jones; Lattimore nearly returned his interception for a touchdown, which would’ve been a huge swing in the game. For once, the Saints finally got the advantage in the turnover department, and yet, because of the injuries (particularly to Kamara), they struggled to move the ball, and because of the penalties, they struggled to finish off drives.
The sad fact, though, is that the Saints were still in position to win the game despite everything that had gone wrong. They had a 17-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter, and even after allowing ten unanswered points, were driving late. That’s when Sean Payton made one of my favorite calls of the season: With 1:53 left, on 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta 24, Payton decided, instead of a Wil Lutz field goal attempt and a hope to hold Atlanta scoreless and win in overtime, he’d go for the first down, try to run down the clock and score a game-winning touchdown right then and there. Most coaches would take the “safe” play here and kick the field goal– the irony, of course, is that it’s not safe at all and doesn’t guarantee a better shot of winning; it just shields the coach from criticism and defers a difficult decision to later.
Payton called a quarterback sneak and Brees gained two yards. A few plays later, with the ball at the Atlanta 11, Brees decided to throw a pass down the middle for Josh Hill, even though Deion Jones still had inside position on Hill and was in the better position to make the catch. He did, of course, and that sealed New Orleans’ fate.
It was a baffling decision by Brees; he certainly has his moments where he will make an inexplicable decision out of nowhere, but even by those standards, Brees has some explaining to do. Hill had no chance of getting to the ball first where Brees put it; indeed, two other Atlanta defenders arguably had a better shot. On top of that, the stakes were far too high to try something so risky; it was only second down, and New Orleans could have again tried to score on third down, and in the worst case scenario kicked the same field goal but left Atlanta less time to score.
For Hill, this failure to outmuscle Jones to the catch point comes after he had a crucial fumble last week against Carolina, not to mention his fumble inside the 10 against Buffalo. I know tight end is a shaky position for New Orleans with Coby Fleener on IR, but hey, all the more reason to not run plays designed for your tight ends in critical moments.
Unfortunately, because of all the extenuating factors to this game, I’m not sure there’s a lot to take away about the Saints’ performance (other than “Don’t get everyone injured”). The Saints’ chances for a bye are probably shot now, although with Carson Wentz’s ACL injury, the NFC suddenly looks wide open. The Eagles, who had home-field advantage firmly in hand, now don’t have their starting quarterback and MVP candidate. The Rams and Vikings are both flawed teams, and though the Saints lost to each, the circumstances favor a rematch. The Vikings had Sam Bradford playing out of his mind, and the Saints were still starting De’Vante Harris and leaving Ken Crawley inactive, and even then the Vikings only won by 10 at home. The Rams beat the Saints by six at home in a game where New Orleans was again shorthanded in the secondary, down both Lattimore and Crawley; Harris was back in the lineup and got beaten so badly and so consistently that he was eventually benched for Sterling Moore, then cut and assigned to the practice squad the next week. So it’s reasonable to expect that, at full health, New Orleans can hang with any of the other top contenders in the NFC. First, however, comes the rest of the regular season. The Saints should be favored in all three remaining games; since they’re again tied with Carolina and only up one game on the Falcons, they probably have to win all three just to ensure a division title.
The Saints play at home Sunday against the Jets. New York lost Josh McCown for the year to a broken hand, and though he’s no world-beater, he’s certainly better than Bryce Petty. New Orleans is currently a 16-point favorite to win; the Saints should easily handle their business, but they must take care not to look ahead to the home rematch with Atlanta, and secure this win first. All three of these games are critical.
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