Last night, the New Orleans lost to their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons, in a contest where the Saints fell victim to a full slate of different injuries to players on both sides of the ball; along with some very questionable calls by NFL referees officiating the game which saw the Falcons gain 9 first downs on Saints penalties.
The Saints have lost two games in the last three weeks, and at (9-4) still lead the NFC South Division by a half game over (8-4) Carolina (who plays this Sunday at home vs. Minnesota) and the Falcons (who are now 8-5) by one game.
New Orleans will now have a "mini-Bye week", as they will have 9 days of rest between now and Sunday, December 17th at home in the Superdome against the New York Jets; which now will become a game that the Saints will need to win if they hope to make the Playoffs and get a Wild Card game at home.
The Saints' hopes of earning a 1st Round Bye in the Playoffs are all but gone now, and the team needs to win at least 2 of their last 3 games to ensure that they even make the Playoffs at this point.
They still can win the Division title as well, but with another game against Atlanta at home in the Superdome on Christmas Eve (December 24th) and then the season finale at Tampa Bay on New Year's Eve (December 31st), the Division title is still up for grabs.
Bottom line: the Saints will need to finish the last 3 games of the season strong, if they hope to be a factor in the Playoffs.
With all of that in mind, here are yesterday's biggest Saints "winners and losers" from yesterday's tough 20-17 loss to the Falcons...........
THE BIGGEST WINNERS
6. (TIE) CHRIS BANJO AND MARCUS WILLIAMS, SAFETIES
The Saints defensive secondary as a whole stood out in this contest, and although they were penalized multiple times for holds and illegal contact although many were questionable calls in some instances, kept the level of play high despite losing starting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro to his recurring groin injury in the 2nd quarter.
Back-up safety Chris Banjo picked off Falcons QB Matt Ryan on the first play of Atlanta's drive to start the 3rd quarter, and ultimately it led to a Saints TD several plays later.
On the ensuing Falcons drive, starting free safety Marcus Williams intercepted Ryan in the end zone with the Falcons poised to tie the score.
In all, there were many instances in which the Saints defensive secondary "bent but did not break". Given how bad this same unit looked at this time last year, their overall performance this year and again last night has been one of the true blessings for the team in the 2017 season.
5. TOMMYLEE LEWIS, WIDE RECEIVER
Lewis was pressed into a bigger role in the offense when the team lost RB Alvin Kamara to a concussion on the game's opening drive, and filled in admirably though his overall impact was negligible.
His biggest play of the game came with the Saints trailing 10-3 late in the 2nd quarter, when he caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from QB Drew Brees.
It was actually the first receiving score of Lewis' career, and he even made one defender miss near the sideline before reaching the end zone. That ultimately was the only "big play" that he had, but it was one that helped the Saints regain momentum and kept the score close enough for them to stay in the game.
4. MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER
It was another fine performance by the Saints #1 WR last night, as Thomas caught 10 passes out of the 14 times that he was targeted, for 117 yards and a 1-yard TD catch early in the 3rd quarter.
In the process, Thomas finished with his second 100-yard effort of the season. The 2nd-year former Ohio State star wideout now has scored touchdowns in back-to-back games and has seen double-digit targets in four of his last six contests.
On a night where the Saints CLEARLY missed Kamara, having Thomas step up was a huge boost to the Saints offense and one they hope will continue for the remainder of the season and hopefully (assuming they actually make it first, to begin with) into the Playoffs as well.
3. MARK INGRAM, RUNNING BACK
The stat sheet won't reflect it, but Saints RB Mark Ingram showed just how much he has meant to the team this year for his toughness and never-say-die attitude that clearly has made an impact in how the Saints NEVER quit fighting no matter what the situation.
Ingram essentially had to "shoulder the load" for the Saints running game after Kamara's departure, and had several nice runs on plays where he simply just refused to go down in spite of having several Falcons defenders attempting to tackle him.
Ingram finished with 12 carries for 49 yards and caught four out of five targets for 43 yards, which is far below the output that he's been used to making this year.
But there are no ways to measure TOUGHNESS, and if there were a way to do so, Ingram would certainly be among the League leaders in that category, hands down.
2. MANTI TE'O, LINEBACKER
The Saints defense held its own in this contest, in spite of losing a handful of players throughout the game; with one of them a very critical one when starting middle linebacker A.J. Klein suffered a groin injury with 6:35 left in the 1st quarter.
Te'o was then inserted into the line-up, and the Saints defense actually thrived under Te'o's on-field leadership. Te'o was all over the place, and finished with a team-high 10 tackles, along with two tackles for loss.
Te’o's exuberance an high energy seemed to rub off on his teammates, and the unit's intensity level seemed to pick up steadily after Te'o's entry into the contest.
That's no slight whatsoever intended for Klein's capabilities, but just an acknowledgement that Te'o had what easily could be labeled as a "lights out" performance.
1. MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK
Lattimore returned for last night's game after he had missed the past 2 games with an ankle injury, but was actually suffering from an apparent illness last night that teammate Ken Crawley told reporters involved Lattimore coughing up blood.
Lattimore exited the game at various times and was shown on the sidelines inhaling oxygen with a mask from an oxygen tank on the team sidelines. But despite his physical condition, Lattimore played through it all and still managed for the most part to "lock down" Falcons star WR Julio Jones.
Lattimore — who criticized his own performance afterwards — had an interception while covering Jones late in the 2nd quarter, and held him to 5 catches for 98 yards.
While those numbers might not indicate a "lock down" performance, make no mistake about it:
It was because Lattimore was able to prevent Jones from having a HUGE game that he is very capable of having on a weekly basis, that allowed the Saints to stay in the game; despite all of the injuries they suffered throughout the game along with the more-than-questionable officiating.
THE BIGGEST LOSERS
2. JOSH LeRIBEUS, OFFENSIVE GUARD
LeRibeus entered the contest late in the 2nd quarter when starting left guard Senio Kelemete — who himself was starting in the place of normal starting left guard Andrus Peat who was out with a injury, was hurt on the drive that started after the Lattimore interception.
But it wasn't LeRibeus' play at guard that hurt the Saints as much as a mental error on special teams did.
On what appeared to be a 47-yard made field goal by kicker Wil Lutz to end the 1st half, the Saints instead were flagged for lining up illegally and were subject to a 10-second runoff, which ended the half.
As noted last night by New Orleans Advocate writer Nick Underhill, sometimes NFL referees will call that penalty, but more often than not it usually results with only just a warning and not a flag.
However, LeRibeus simply could have avoided the penalty altogether by just simply moving up a bit closer to the line of scrimmage itself, to avoid the POSSIBILITY of such a call being made.
Ultimately, LeRibeus' mistake didn't cost the Saints the game (more on what did eventually cost them the game is coming up in a minute); but it's that play that did cost the Saints 3 points, that earns him a spot on our list.
1. DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK
It's not very often — if EVER — that you will see the future Hall of Fame Saints starting QB make our list, but last night he earned for one simple reason: he made a poor decision on the game-deciding play that ended with him throwing an interception in the end zone to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones that essentially sealed the win for Atlanta with 1:25 remaining on the clock.
Brees was attempting to throw the ball to tight end Josh Hill, who clearly appeared to be well-covered and simply had no shot whatsoever of making the catch or even a shot at getting a hand on it.
Certainly all the credit has to go to Jones for making a sensational leaping catch of the ball in that situation, but it was the type of decision on Brees' part that we don't often see from him; and one you'd expect from a young QB in the League still learning the game, and not a 17-year veteran.
In the past, Brees has been guilty of sometimes trying to FORCE the issue, and this was a classic case of that very scenario once again playing itself out. Even if the Saints simply run the ball 3 straight times in that situation, they still could have kicked a field goal (assuming Lutz would have made the kick) to tie the game and send it into overtime.
We can blame the Saints loss on poor officiating, a slew of injuries, or WHATEVER other excuse that you want to use; but at the end of the game, the Saints STILL HAD A CHANCE TO WIN THE GAME — and Brees' poor decision in that situation was the ultimate reason why the Saints earned their 4th loss of the 2017 NFL season with 3 games still left to play.
As expected, Brees himself acknowledged as much after the game: "I shouldn't have thrown it," Brees said of the play. "The guy made a nice play, but not worth taking the risk right there, especially when you know you got points".
"You're assessing risk, and that was not a risk I should've taken. And obviously it bit us"....................