Yesterday, the New Orleans Saints delivered when it counted the most. In what was easily their biggest and most important of the entire season with 4 game still left to play, New Orleans defeated their NFC South division rivals the Carolina Panthers, by a score of 31-21.
As a direct result of yesterday's big victory, the Saints now are in control their own destiny in the NFC South. By virtue of their victory and Atlanta's 14-9 loss yesterday in their home stadium to Minnesota, the Saints have sole possession of first place in the division at (9-3).
And now since they have swept (8-4) Carolina, the Saints also have the advantage in any head-to-head tiebreakers with the Panthers.
Up next for New Orleans on their schedule is their hated arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints currently lead the Falcons (7-5) by two games as they prepare to face them twice in the next three weeks — starting in 3 days from now on this coming Thursday night at Atlanta, before then facing them once again in 2 weeks from now at home in the Superdome, in Week #16 (Christmas Eve, December 24th).
With all of that in mind, let's take a look back at yesterday's 5 biggest Saints "winners and losers", from the big 31-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers.........
THE BIGGEST WINNERS
5. TAYSOM HILL, QUARTERBACK / SPECIAL TEAMS "ACE"
So what are the odds that before yesterday that you would have EVER seen Saints rookie back-up QB Taysom Hill on this list? The answer is NEVER — unless it was a complete disaster and the Saints had lost BOTH starting QB Drew Brees and #2 QB Chase Daniel to injuries.
But then there are extenuating circumstances, just like yesterday's contest at the Superdome. The Saints' 3rd-string quarterback was active for the first time this season and played special teams. Hill made the most of his opportunity, and flashed his brilliant athleticism that Saints head coach Sean Payton has openly gushed about like a love-struck teenage girl coaches since the team signed him before the regular season.
Early in the 2nd quarter, Hill forced Panthers punter Michael Palardy into a mental error as he dropped the snap from center in punt formation when Hill caught his peripheral vision while rushing in quickly off the outside edge. Palardy picked up his own fumble and attempted to pass but it fell incomplete, to set up New Orleans just 31 yards from the end zone.
Later in the game, Hill almost blocked another Palardy punt and then even made a tackle in kickoff coverage, earning a "high-5" from a smiling Payton as he returned to the sidelines afterwards. Hill is simply just a phenomenal athlete, and he showed it yesterday.
But that said, let's slow the roll with the talk by some Saints fans (probably fueled in part by some complimentary comments that Payton has made about Hill previously) about Hill being the next starting QB after Brees retires. That has as much chance happening of you winning the Powerball lottery 3 weeks in a row.
Hill is a nice player and yesterday showed why he's a part of the team, but anyone who actually believes Hill will be the next starting QB for the Saints after Brees retires is setting themselves up for a HUGE disappointment — and likely as early as next April's 2018 NFL Draft when names like Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and University of Memphis star QB Riley Ferguson will be available.
4. MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER
Thomas has had a relatively quiet year in his 2nd NFL season; or at least that's by comparison to his "break out" rookie season from last year.
But in recent weeks, Thomas has started to come alive again, and yesterday was one of those instances.
Thomas got the Saint offensive attack going on the team's first scoring drive with a nice 3rd-down reception early in the 1st quarter, and then added a 10-yard TD reception in the 2nd quarter that was his first score since the Week #4 win over the Dolphins at London, England.
Thomas finished the game with five catches for 70 yards, and his biggest play came on a 32-yard reception that Brees hit him perfectly with down the left sideline with to set up an eventual Mark Ingram rushing TD.
Overall, it was a solid performance for the Saints #1 WR — and a welcomed return to our "Biggest Winners" list.
3. KEN CRAWLEY, CORNERBACK
After missing the loss to the Rams last week with an abdominal injury, Crawley returned to the starting line-up yesterday and had what might have been his best performance of the year, perhaps along with the Miami game from back in Week #4.
In consecutive passing attempts in the 2nd quarter, Crawly forced starting Panthers #1 WR Devin Funchess out of bounds for an incomplete pass, and then knocked the ball away from Funchess on a key 3rd down pass attempt from Cam Newton.
But Crawley "saved his best for last"; when he knocked away a deep ball in the 4th quarter that could have been a touchdown to a wide open Panthers WR Damiere Byrd; and then stopped Funchess dead in his tracks on a 4th-down-and-6 play inside the Saints 10 with a tough tackle that left Carolina a yard shy of 1st-down-and-goal-to-go.
Crawley did eventually surrender a late TD to a leaping Funchess down the right sidelines late in the game for a Panthers score, but it was simply a great effort on the part of Funchess and not a blown coverage.
The bottom line is that Crawley has been a very good player for the Saints defense this year and might be THE most improved player on the entire roster from last year, and yesterday he demonstrated why.
2. MARK INGRAM, RUNNING BACK
Not surprisingly, you've probably already figured out by now who our two "Biggest Winners" are this week, not that you ever really had any doubt.
Ingram made his way onto our list again for an umpteenth time; as his 72-yard run in the 2nd quarter injected some life into the home crowd at the Superdome and remarkably was actually the second longest run of his 7-year career.
Ingram "juked" Panthers free safety Mike Adams with not one but TWO cut-backs on the play; and had the veteran defender completely turned around and grasping for air as he missed three tackle attempts before he finally stiff-armed Adams and then blew right past him.
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 3, 2017
Ingram finished with 14 carries for 85 yards and scored on a 3-yard TD run. He also added 6 receptions for 37 yards.
Ingram was held in check for most of the 2nd half, but he clearly helped the Saints running game "set the tone" for the entire game, which of course greatly benefited the #1 player on our list.
1. ALVIN KAMARA, RUNNING BACK
We're not even going to waste your time with all of the incredible "Matrix" movie-series analogies and descriptions, along with all of the other things being said about Kamara, that you haven't already heard a MILLION TIMES by now.
Hey: the kid is simply just PHENOMENAL — and perhaps more than ANY one single player this season, Kamara is THE most responsible for the Saints' turnaround this year because of how much he single-handedly has TRANSFORMED how the Saints tun their offense around him.
Kamara's 4th-down touchdown in the 1st quarter capped the Saints' opening drive and actually showed off his power more so than his crazy-good athleticism, as he bounced off a couple of would-be tacklers and absorbed a BRUTAL hit from Panthers LB Shaq Thompson before scoring a 2-yard TD to give New Orleans the early lead.
I don't know how Alvin Kamara's body can routinely take these hits and he still falls forward pic.twitter.com/dZID7ASaLz
— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) December 3, 2017
Later, he added a 20-yard TD run on the Saints offense's initial drive to open the 2nd half.
Kamara finished with 126 yards on 14 total touches (9 carries, 60 rushing yards; 5 catches for 66 yards), and easily was the "difference maker" of the game for New Orleans in what was clearly their biggest game of the year thus far.
Kamara now leads the NFL with 7.0 yards per carry this season. And he already has become just the third rookie in NFL history with more than 600 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards in a season -- with four games still to play.
For historical reference: Washington's Charley Taylor in 1964 and Detroit's Billy Sims in 1980 were the only other two players to have accomplished that feat. EVER.
There just aren't enough words to describe him.
Except maybe of course: (future) 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year, and THE BIGGEST STEAL PERIOD of the entire 2017 NFL Draft.
THE BIGGEST LOSERS
5. ANDRUS PEAT, LEFT TACKLE
Let's put this out there: as the starting left GUARD on the Saints offensive line this season, 3rd year player Andrus Peat has been as about as good as they get for his position in the NFL.
But unfortunately, that doesn't always translate over to the times when he is forced to shift over to left tackle in place of the frequently-injured Terron Armstead, and yesterday was one of those times,
Peat started in place of Armstead and struggled in pass protection against Carolina’s Mario Addison; who at times DOMINATED the young Saints veteran O-Lineman and helped the Panthers defense to adequately pressure Saints QB Drew Brees for a majority of the contest.
Make no mistake: Peat has had a solid year for the Saints in 2017, but he's much better suited to do it as a guard instead of a tackle, where he seems to be a bit more comfortable than he does when he is tasked with protecting Brees' all-important "blind side".
4. ARTHUR MAULET, CORNERBACK / SPECIAL TEAMS
Maulet, the New Orleans native and former Bonnabel High School star athlete who was activated to the regular roster from the Practice Squad this past Friday, didn't fare that well in his first "official" action of the 2017 season.
Maulet saw a few snaps at CB, but it was his play in the 3rd quarter on special teams that he'll be remembered for in yesterday's game.
Saints head coach Sean Payton LIT UP Maulet on the sidelines with an entire string of obscenities and colorful 4-letter cuss words, after the rookie was flagged for an illegal block in the back on a punt return that WR / KR Tommylee Lewis ran back for a TD that the referees called back.
Maulet certainly has a bright future ahead of him, but yesterday was a debut that the rookie would probably like to (but can't after that big-time ass-chewing that he got from Payton) just forget about.
3. P.J. WILLIAMS, CORNERBACK
Williams makes our list for a 2nd straight week for essentially the very same reason he made it in last week's loss to the Rams; which is that despite his solid overall play, he continually makes mistakes that are potentially very costly to the team's defense in key / critical moments.
Yesterday it was on a 3rd down play in the 3rd quarter where he simply didn't bother turning his head around in coverage and grabbed the arm of Panthers WR Russell Shephard as he ran a deep route along the Saints sidelines and was called for defensive pass interference.
The Panthers eventually came away with no points and Williams was "bailed out", but the fact remains that Williams has to be smarter in those types of situations.
It's likely the reason that when starter Marshon Lattimore returns to the line-up this Thursday Night against the Falcons, that Williams will be regulated to special teams duties once again.
2. WIL LUTZ, KICKER
Lutz has been off and on our weekly "Winners and Losers" lists all season long, and yesterday he earned a return trip to our "Losers" list for his missed 38-yard field goal wide to the right near the end of the 3rd quarter, that would have given the Saints a 17-point lead that and would have made it difficult for the Panthers to mount a come back from.
Saints head coach Sean Payton seemed to be a bit annoyed by the miss afterwards and said something to Lutz as he came off the field; and the 2nd year kicker eventually did redeem himself with a 31-yard field goal later on in the 4th quarter that eventually "iced" the 31-21 win for New Orleans.
But once again, Lutz remains maddeningly INCONSISTENT at times — and as we have mentioned once before: one day, a miss by Lutz is going to cost the Saints a win in a critically important game, like a Playoff game or God forbid, a conference championship or even a Super Bowl.
1. JOSH HILL, TIGHT END
For the 2nd time this season, back-up tight end Josh Hill finds himself as our #1 biggest "loser" for one simple and very SPECIFIC reason: he can't hold on to the football.
Yesterday midway through the 2nd quarter, the Saints were already leading by a score of 21-7 and had just gotten the ball back after forcing a Carolina punt, and were driving with a chance to PUT CAROLINA AWAY EARLY in the contest.
On a 2nd down and short near midfield, Brees hit an open Hill with a short pass that Hill would have gotten the 1st down on, but as he turned and began running upfield, Panthers safety Mike Adams stripped him while making a tackle near the 50-yard line. Hill's fumble gave new life to the Panthers, who scored a touchdown just four plays later to trim the Saints' lead to 21-14.
The Saints of course would still manage to survive Hill's fumble to win the game; but just as with Lutz's missed kick, it's exactly these type of what seem to be little and inconsequential mistakes that will potentially stop New Orleans from being a championship team instead of being merely just a Playoff team.........