An early Christmas gift: The Saints will be at home through the playoffs

Nobody expected the Pittsburgh Steelers to give the Saints an easy win on Sunday, fighting for their playoff lives as they were, and with arguably both the best pair of receivers and the best pass rush in the league, they were in prime position to challenge the Saints.

And they did not, keeping the heat on Drew Brees all day and using Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster to generate consistent offense downfield. The Saints held stronger than most, though, and the combination of another Drew Brees fourth-quarter comeback with a clutch defensive play sealed up a 31-28 win for the Saints, giving them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and making the week 17 game meaningless for the final regular-season standings.

This late in the week, I don’t want to spend too much time on a straight recap of the game, so I’m going to try to hit some interesting highlights from the game and take a look at what the win implies for week 17.

The pass defense wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

OK, sure. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster had ridiculous games, combining for 300 receiving yards between the two of them, with Brown accounting for two of the team’s three touchdowns among his 14 receptions and 185 yards. (JJSS scooped up 11 receptions on his way to 115 yards.) Most of that production came in a third-quarter flurry, though, boosted by Brown’s obscene route-running ability and absolutely undeniable hands. This would have been one of the catches of the year, except that Brown barely doesn’t get his second foot inbounds:

Of course, on the very next play, Brown used a deep release to beat a double team to score. He’s just that good.

All that said: the Saints were surprisingly effective during the opening and closing stretches of the game, considering they were covering arguably the top pair of receivers in the NFL. Brown and JuJu did get theirs, but they didn’t overwhelm the defense all game, and the defense by and large shut down the rest of the Steelers offense, which only had 129 yards of total offense outside of Brown and Smith-Schuster’s receiving.

Terron Armstead and Ted Ginn are vital to this team’s championship hopes.

Armstead finally returned after missing five games with a pectoral injury. The difference was immediate: Armstead has rare athleticism at the left tackle position, and he was vital not only to blocking the Steelers’ athletic pass rush, but also to the running back screen game the Saints are fond of. The offense had struggled in recent weeks, particularly on screens, and Armstead’s absence and what he brings to the line was a major reason why.

Unfortunately, Armstead re-aggravated his pectoral injury and left the game again, causing the offensive line to struggle to protect Brees. They did a fairly admirable job, though, as for the most part Brees didn’t have long in the pocket, but long enough to get the pass off, only getting sacked twice.

Ginn, meanwhile, provided a second reliable option at wide receiver, a crucial factor in moving the ball downfield while the defense focused on Michael Thomas (and a player who could ensure that the defense couldn’t do that to the exclusion of the other targets). Ginn has long been known as a deep threat due to his speed, but in his time with the Saints, he’s also been used on more intermediate routes, with his speed and quickness giving him the ability to get substantial separation. Ginn caught 5 passes for 74 yards, including a huge 25-yard reception on 3rd-and-20 on the game-winning drive. (This came immediately after Keith Kirkwood dropped a wide-open pass on 2nd-and-20 that would have converted the first down.)

Side note: Taysom Hill also underthrew Ginn on a deep ball on the Saints’ opening drive, leading to an interception. Unfortunately, this column is already running long without breaking down the good and bad of the Taysom Hill Package.

Big plays from the defense helped seal the win.

Three major defensive plays helped turn the tide in the Saints’ victory:

-On a third-and-short, the Steelers brought in Stevan Ridley, which was a huge telegraph for what they were going to do. (Ridley had only been used on short-yardage carries to this point.) The Saints stormed the line and not only kept Ridley from getting close to the first-down marker, but also forced a fumble the Saints recovered.

-On 4th-and-5 from their own 42, with 4:11 left in the game and up 28-24, the Steelers dialed up a fake punt. A gutsy call that is by its nature controversial, but I like the decision: The Saints can score from anywhere on the field, and it seemed like a first down would allow the Steelers to run down more clock and put the Saints in a much more difficult position. However, the punt defense team sniffed out the fake and stuffed fullback / up-man Roosevelt Nix a yard short of the line of scrimmage.

-On Pittsburgh’s final desperate comeback drive, JuJu Smith-Schuster took a pass and crossed into the edge of field goal range at the Saints 35… and then had the ball punched out by none other than Sheldon Rankins, who had been dropped back into coverage on a zone blitz. Rankins’ play saved the game for the Saints and allowed them to lock up home field advantage with a week to go.

MVPs lead fourth quarter comebacks, right?

Drew Brees’ touchdown pass to Michael Thomas with 1:25 left sealed the win, accounting for Brees’ seventh fourth-quarter comeback and sixth game-winning drive on the season. Only Houston’s Deshaun Watson is close to those numbers, with five categories in each.

The MVP race seems to come down to Brees and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes’ case is built around his eye-popping bulk numbers, with 4,800 passing yards and 48 TDs to date. (Brees stands just shy of 4,000 yards and at 32 TDs.) Mahomes will also get a chance to add to those numbers in week 17, whereas Brees likely will not. (More on that in a minute.)

But then… isn’t that latter point part of the case why Brees should be the choice? While Brees was sealing yet another comeback to guarantee home field for the Saints, Mahomes was in the middle of a two-game losing streak and risking the chance of not only blowing home-field advantage for the Chiefs, but the actual division title. (Mahomes only has two fourth-quarter comebacks and two game-winning drives to Brees’ six and seven.) Mahomes is having a big year, but the Chiefs are 3-4 against teams with a winning record this season, losing to the Patriots, Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks (while beating the Steelers, Ravens, and Chargers again). That can’t all be laid at Mahomes’ feet– the defense gave up 43 to New England and 54 to the Rams– but he also had a chance to win several of these games, and he didn’t. Brees, on the other hand, is 5-1 with the only loss coming on the road to a lights-out Cowboys defense while the offense was missing multiple key starters.

And to that point, Mahomes’ surrounding skill talent is better: Thomas is a better receiver than Hill, and Kamara is a better running back than Kareem Hunt– the games he played for Kansas City still count– but the Chiefs also have arguably the league’s best tight end in Travis Kelce, while the Saints have been making do with 38-year-old Ben Watson (who has announced he will retire after the season). The Chiefs’ second receiver is former #4 overall draft pick Sammy Watkins, whom the Chiefs signed to a $16 million-per-year deal in the offseason. The Saints’ second receiver by targets is third-round rookie Tre’Quan Smith.

Mahomes’ and Brees’ efficiency numbers are just about the same, and Brees is going to set the all-time completion record (again). Plus, there’s a sense of history at work here. Mahomes is 23 and will have many, many years ahead of him to break records and MVPs. Brees is 39 years old and nearing the end of the line. He may not have another chance to win the MVP; he was already denied two he deserved, in 2009 and 2011. (In 2009, Brees inexplicably lost to Peyton Manning despite having better efficiency and bulk numbers; in 2011, he lost to Aaron Rodgers, who admittedly had a preposterously efficient season, one of the best of all-time, but that was also the year Brees set the passing yards record for a 13-3 team.) It would be rather silly for the NFL’s all-time leading passer to retire without a single MVP award.

Although I’m sure Brees would take another championship trophy over that one.

What does all this mean for week 17?

Well, the team has been a little coy about who will and won’t be available for week 17, but it seems likely the team will rest its most valuable starters and the players who most need to get healthy. This means guys like Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Terron Armstead, Cameron Jordan, and Marshon Lattimore might not play at all. Obviously injuries and the way NFL rosters work mean they can only rest so many players, but those are the names I’d expect to be most likely to get the week off. (Armstead is probably the most vital one; they may have brought him back too soon this week, as he left the game after re-aggravating his pectoral injury.)

Indeed, as I was writing this paragraph, the team announced that Armstead, right guard Larry Warford, and backup left tackle Jermon Bushrod would be out for Sunday’s game against the Panthers. The team re-signed tackles Cornelius Lucas and Derek Newton (who had been added to the roster in the last couple of weeks before being released again), so they may get some time in the season finale.

Sean Payton has also announced that Teddy Bridgewater will start the game, giving him some real meaningful action at last. As much as I’m a fan of Bridgewater and would love to see the Saints re-sign him as a successor in waiting to Brees, it seems likely that with the number of teams looking to make a change at the position, Bridgewater might get an offer too lucrative to pass up, especially if he plays well on Sunday. I hope he does; after everything he’s been through to get his career back on track, nothing would delight me more than to see him succeed.

The Saints are still touchdown favorites against Carolina even with the expectation Brees won’t play, as the Panthers are down to their third quarterback, Kyle Allen. It should be a good opportunity to see the young players get some action and determine what we might have for the future there, or who’s ready to step up and be a playoff contributor. You can tune out until the divisional round if you’d like– the Saints of course have the 1 seed and will be hosting playoff games in the Superdome– but I’ll be watching to see who’s ready to take a step forward.