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The New Orleans Saints are NFC South champions… in the most excruciating fashion

A weird, baffling loss to Tampa Bay may have been informed by knowledge of the Atlanta-Carolina game, but isn’t any less disappointing

The good news is, the New Orleans Saints will be hosting a home playoff game on Wild Card Weekend, something that had been expected for sometime but wasn’t officially confirmed until the results of the final week of the NFL season are in. The Saints have finished as NFC South champions, and will host the Carolina Panthers Sunday afternoon for Wild Card Weekend.

The bad news is, this happened only because the Panthers themselves lost to the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints ended the season with a moment reminiscent of the recent 7-9 stretch, blowing a lead by surrendering a long touchdown drive to the then-4-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and losing 31-24. It was the Saints’ first and only loss this season to a team with fewer than ten wins.

While the Falcons only beat the Panthers 19-10, they were firmly in command of the game all day. It’s possible that the Saints were aware of this and not particularly concerned about the results by the time their own game approached an end. However, that still doesn’t excuse the fact that they had the Buccaneers pinned at 4th-and-10 from their own 5-yard-line, with 1:30 on the clock, and managed to give up a 95-yard drive for a go-ahead touchdown. Everyone was to blame: Cameron Brate caught the first pass to convert the fourth down; Mike Evans beat Marshon Lattimore for a couple of passes, and Ken Crawley gave up the long touchdown pass to rookie Chris Godwin.  (Godwin, for the record, was one of our favorite underrated receivers in the last NFL Draft at Zone Reads; the very difficult catch he made to score the TD demonstrated why. He’s going to be a player for some time to come.)

It also doesn’t excuse the degree to which the offense sputtered, given that Tampa Bay has played questionable defense all season. The Bucs won the battles of time of possession and yardage, and though the Saints won the turnover battle 3-1, they still couldn’t capitalize on that advantage. The vaunted rushing game only produced 79 yards on 22 carries by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Terron Armstead was out again; he is listed as questionable for the wild card game. Senio Kelemete is not a bad player, but Armstead is a Pro Bowl-caliber player when healthy, and the Saints really need their offensive line at full strength for the offense to function at maximum capacity.

Special teams against Tampa were a mixed bag. One Saints drive stalled when the team called a fake field goal and failed to convert; the play design, featuring a pitch to Wil Lutz who ran it outside right, was actually pretty good, but lead blocker Tony McDaniel missed his assignment, allowing the defender to tackle Lutz. (See our featured photo.) On the bright side, Alvin Kamara has been returning kicks for the last two weeks, and he took this one for a touchdown, all the more remarkable considering he clearly thought about taking a knee first.

(I had the cut the frame rate in half to fit the whole return in.)

The Saints’ special teams have been one of the squad’s weaker units in recent memory (the consistently excellent Thomas Morstead aside), but after hiring legendary special teams coach Mike Westhoff midseason, they’ve begun to improve. Putting Kamara to return kicks just in time for the playoffs will give them an explosive element there, and might be enough of an improvement to the unit to tip the difference in a close game to the Saints.

The Saints are 3-3 in their last six games after the eight-game winning streak, and 1-3 in one-score games on the year (all of which have come in the last seven weeks). Combine that record in close games with the rash of injuries (nineteen players are now on IR or the NFI list), and they could use every advantage they can find.

Individual accolades

With the season over, it’s time to look at the individual milestones set by various players, including the AP All-Pro awards which were announced Friday.

Cameron Jordan is the team’s lone first-team All-Pro, finishing second in votes at the edge rusher position to Calais Campbell. It’s a long-deserved award for one of the most versatile and tireless two-way defenders in the NFL. Jordan was surely aided by his thirteen sacks this year, a personal best, but he also set career marks with 48 solo tackles and an outstanding 12 passes defensed. (The latter number is tops by a defensive lineman by a substantial margin; second place finished with 7.)

Beyond Jordan, Alvin Kamara finished second in voting at the offensive flex position behind Le’Veon Bell; if you want to call Kamara a second-team All-Pro, I won’t argue. Marshon Lattimore finished tied for fifth at cornerback (third team) and tied for fifth at the generic “defensive back” (nickelback) position. Four of New Orleans’ offensive linemen– Ryan Ramczyk, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford, and Max Unger– received exactly one vote, which suggests one voter recognized the importance and level of the line’s contributions to the Saints offense this season.

Drew Brees sealed the single-season completion percentage record, officially finishing at 72.0%. He takes it back from Sam Bradford, whose 71.6% last year broke Brees’ own record of 71.2%, set in 2011, which broke Brees’ own record of 70.6% in 2009, which broke Ken Anderson’s 1982 mark of 70.6%. (While both Brees’ and Anderson’s seasons round to the same number, going one decimal further reveals that Brees’ mark was 70.62% while Anderson’s was 70.55%.)

Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara became the first pair of teammates at running back to each finish with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage in NFL history.

Michael Thomas set a Saints record for receptions in a season, with his 104 beating Jimmy Graham’s mark of 99; he also set the record for most receptions in the first two seasons of an NFL career. (The mark was previously held by Jarvis Landry. In third place is Odell Beckham; Landry and Beckham were teammates at LSU before being selected in the 2014 NFL draft. That’s a short stretch of territory, from Tiger Stadium to the Superdome, where young receivers thrive.)

Marcus Williams had two interceptions this week to get to four total on the year; the nine that he and Marshon Lattimore combined for is the most by a pair of rookies on the same team since Jairus Byrd and Cary Harris for Buffalo in 2009.

And in perhaps the best indicator of Jeff Ireland’s qualifications for executive of the year, Pro Football Focus’ rookie of the year list included four Saints in the top ten:

source: Pro Football Focus

(I know Mickey Loomis is the GM and would be more likely to win the actual award, but he’s been the GM for a long time, and the drafting since Ireland took over as Director of College Scouting has been night and day.)

Playoff Preview

There’s not a whole lot new or exciting to say about the Saints matching up with the Panthers. New Orleans swept the Panthers in the regular season, first with a dominant 34-13 victory in Carolina week 3, then a 31-21 victory in the Superdome week 13. The biggest change for the Saints is that Marshon Lattimore is healthy after missing both previous Panthers games. The wide receivers aren’t particularly important to the Panthers offense, though, and the bigger question will be how the team will cover Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey and defend the run game. With coverage linebackers Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein and box safety Kenny Vaccaro all on IR and out for the season, there are no obvious candidates for either of these roles. (Vonn Bell and Craig Robertson, respectively, will probably have the most responsibility; nickel cornerback P.J. Williams may be involved too.) The Saints’ run defense has been one of the team’s weaker spots, especially since Alex Okafor was lost to injury, and with Cam Newton at quarterback, the Panthers immediately have one of the most difficult run games to defend in the NFL, even before accounting for the talent of McCaffrey, Jonathan Stewart, and the offensive line. Perhaps the team’s best hope in that regard is to build a large enough lead to force the Panthers to pass; the Saints have a clear advantage in that regard, as injuries and trades have left the Panthers receiver depth chart as, essentially, Devin Funchess and a handful of castoffs.

The Saints moved the ball effectively in both matchups, outgaining the Panthers 6.4 to 4.9 yards per play in the first, and 6.2 to 5.3 in the second. The run game occasionally struggled with consistency but was able to break a few big plays in each matchup, and Brees had very solid games both times. Michael Thomas led the team in receiving each game, totaling 12 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns across the two games. The Panthers’ strength of their defense is in the middle, with outstanding defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short playing in front of multiple All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. If the Saints can attack in space and on the sidelines, particularly with players like Kamara, Thomas, and Ted Ginn, they could dominate this matchup.

One last thing

I couldn’t finish this article without including one more Alvin Kamara GIF, this time of his outstanding deep catch down the sideline:

I’d also highly recommend this profile of Kamara in Sports Illustrated; he’s the kind of player who’s a perfect fit for this city on and off the field.

The Saints are (depending on the book) between six- and seven-point favorites at home against Carolina, in a game scheduled for a 3:40 kickoff Sunday. The matchup is favorable for them, particularly given the previous results this season, but the Saints will still have to step up and play their best game. Here’s hoping this season’s remarkable ride isn’t over yet.

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