In week 14, the Saints played a Thursday game at Atlanta, and as I discussed at the time, they lost a difficult, frustrating match that would have been a major help in their quest to make the playoffs, win the division, and get a first-round bye. However, I held out hope that, with the rematch in two weeks at home, New Orleans would play well enough to overcome any difficulties and secure a win.
And while the margin wasn’t as big as I hoped, the Saints got it done, in particular with some key defensive plays. New Orleans won 23-13, with the Falcons’ only touchdown coming late in the game after it had been decided. Holding Atlanta’s offense, with reigning MVP Matt Ryan behind the controls, perennial All-Pro Julio Jones at wide receiver, and versatile, two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman to only two field goals for the competitive portion of the game was a massive achievement, keyed by some major plays from defenders stepping up.
The most unlikely hero, perhaps, was Mant’i Teo. A part-time player at the beginning of the season as Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein took the full-time and passing-down linebacker duties, he was pressed into duty after Klein was injured, alongside Craig Robertson (starting in Anzalone’s place). Credit goes both to Te’o and Dennis Allen; Te’o struggles in downfield coverage, so Allen schemed to let Te’o man the short routes and attack the run as needed. And Te’o, for his part, fully delivered, with a consistent job in coverage as well as some critical run tackles, twice stopping Falcons running back Tevin Coleman behind the line of scrimmage. He also recovered a Freeman fumble on a carry that started at the Saints’ 1, a huge stop and reversal of fortune for the Falcons.
The two other impressive performances were delivered by your usual suspects, the Saints’ two Pro Bowl defenders. Cameron Jordan was a persistent nuisance in the Falcons’ backfield and delivered two sacks of Matt Ryan, pushing his total for the year to 12, a half-sack off his career best. The Saints sacked Ryan five times in a total, a major factor in slowing down the Falcons’ offense. (George Johnson added 1.5 sacks to his sack last week; for a late-season rotational addition to the defensive line, he’s been awfully productive.)
Marshon Lattimore didn’t have the kind of complete shutdown day we expect of him– he was guarding Julio Jones, after all– but he provided two outstanding plays in particular. The first was his tackle of Jones on a critical third-and-goal, where Jones got his feet in the end zone, but Lattimore successfully prevented his forward progress, keeping Jones from getting the ball into the end zone. On fourth down, a Devonta Freeman run was stuffed for no gain, as Hau’oli Kikaha made the initial hit, and Ken Crawley finished the tackle. But that situation wouldn’t have been possible without Lattimore’s determined play. In a game of inches, Lattimore’s ability to not give an inch proved crucial.
The second, of course, is the now-infamous Butt Interception. While it was something of a fluke play– and still needs a catchy, definitive name– it still took tremendous awareness by Lattimore to realize where the ball was and secure it. Lattimore’s fifth interception of the year ranks him among the league leaders; only four players have more.
It’s hard to be too hyperbolic when describing Lattimore’s play. It’s rare a rookie cornerback makes much of a positive impact at all. It’s rarer still when a cornerback as young as Lattimore (21) makes a positive impact as a rookie. (Remember the “project” who famously busted, Stanley Jean-Baptiste? He was 24 as a rookie.) Rarest of all is that such a young rookie is not only making a positive impact, but playing like one of the very best players in the league at his position. Assuming he stays healthy– and there have been a few moments this year where we fans collectively held our breath– he should be a top player in the league, not just at his position, but in the entire league, for years to come.
I haven’t covered the offense much yet, because they didn’t do anything particularly exciting. The Saints had a couple of longer drives that ended in field goals, but their two touchdowns came on big plays. Mark Ingram’s breakaway 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter made it 20-3 and, in conjunction with the ensuing fourth-and-goal stop, essentially ended the game. Ted Ginn’s touchdown, where he got wide open behind Desmond Trufant and the Falcons defense and took a deep pass 54 yards to the end zone, took the score from 6-0 to 13-0 just before halftime, a major shift in the Saints’ win probability.
Even with Ingram’s breakaway TD run, Ingram and Alvin Kamara only combined for 76 yards on 25 carries. The offense struggled to get going in the running game, and even the passing game was only intermittently successful. Brees completed 75% of his passes but also threw an interception, and the team only converted 3 of 13 third-down attempts. Kamara did most of his damage out of the backfield receiving, with a 7/58 line there, and Michael Thomas and Ginn each caught four passes. (Thomas is now four catches away from Jarvis Landry’s record for most receptions in a player’s first two seasons; at 98 this season, he’s one away from Jimmy Graham’s franchise record for most receptions in a single season.)
Amazingly, though the Saints at last clinched a playoff berth with this win, they still have not clinched the division title. The Panthers keep winning, and so both teams remain 11-4 going into the final week. While the Saints go to Tampa to play a 4-11 Buccaneers team that has little left to play for (and go to Tampa as a touchdown favorite), Carolina has to travel to Atlanta, where the 9-6 Falcons are favored by six and can clinch a playoff berth if they win. Because the Saints have the tiebreaker over the Panthers after sweeping them in the regular season, it will only take a Saints win or Panthers loss for New Orleans to lock up the division title. Carolina is locked into the fifth seed if they can’t win the division, so if New Orleans gets a big lead early I’d expect them to start resting players.
The only other interesting possibility for New Orleans’ playoff fortunes is what happens with the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams beat the Saints earlier in the year, and so they have the tiebreaker for the #3 seed even though both teams sit at 11-4. However, the difference between the #3 and #4 seed is fairly marginal, so Los Angeles has already announced they’re planning to rest some of their best players, like Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, as well as QB Jared Goff. This opens the door for San Francisco to sneak out another win– they are 4-0 with Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting QB, after all– and that could give the Saints the opportunity to jump into the third seed. It would mean that Los Angeles would get to travel to play Carson Wentz-less Philadelphia, rather than to Minnesota– but that kind of gamesmanship and engineering a result often comes back to bite teams. (The last time the Saints played Minnesota, Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook were in the Vikings’ lineup, and De’Vante Harris and Adrian Peterson were in the Saints’.) If that happens, the best possible scenario, and the karmically fitting one, would see the Saints hosting the Rams in the NFC championship game.
First things first, though! Sealing up the win at Tampa and the division title is the immediate business. The Saints are playoff-bound; they need to win the division to secure at least one home game. If they can do that, though, the NFC is wide open this year, and the Saints have proven a gritty and resilient team that has plowed through a rash of injuries to step up its performance in the biggest games and most crucial moments.
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