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Barry Hirstius

Biggest Saints “Winners and Losers” in 23-13 Playoff-Clinching Win vs. Atlanta

The New Orleans Saints gave their devoted fans the best Christmas gift that they've had in the past few years yesterday, with a dominant 23-13 win over their hated NFC South arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.

As a result, the Saints are now headed back to the NFL Playoffs for the first time since the end of the 2013 season.

The (11-4) Saints will play in the Wild-Card round of the NFC playoffs on the weekend of Jan. 6th-7th, as either the #3, #4 or #5 seed.

That won't be determined officially until the final weekend of the regular season next Sunday, in which a number of different scenarios can play out — ranging from as high as the Saints finishing as NFC South Division champions and hosting the Wild Card game at the Superdome as the #3 seed; and all the way down to them playing on the road at either Los Angeles or Carolina as the #5 seed.

The one certain thing for now is that the Saints can win the NFC South Division with a win at Tampa Bay next Sunday, or if Carolina loses their final game next week at Atlanta.

With all of that in mind, here are our weekly Saints "winners and losers" from yesterday's fantastic 23-13 win, over the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons...........

 

THE BIGGEST LOSERS

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

For the sake of sounding like a "homer" (I am a New Orleans native and was raised in the small neighboring metropolitan NOLA suburb of Harahan out in Jefferson Parish), I'll just simply state that there were NO LOSERS in yesterday's win.

Sure, I could "nitpick" and find a Saints player to put into the "biggest losers" side, but that's not what the intent of this season-long / weekly featured Monday Morning article is all about.

The "biggest losers" every single week are Saints players whose poor or below average performance potentially could have cost the team a win — and for the very first time all year, there weren't any at all yesterday.

That's a testament to how well the Saints played overall as a team yesterday, and also to how narrowly focused and well-prepared that they were to win their most important game of the 2017 regular season.

Which of course takes us to........

 

THE BIGGEST WINNERS

#7. (TIE) SHELDON RANKINS AND TYELER DAVISON, DEFENSIVE TACKLES

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

There were a lot of great individual performances by the Saints defense yesterday, and several "back up" players had their moment in the spotlight; including 3rd year defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha (who made a nice play when he stopped a goal-line run in the 4th quarter) and recently-signed defensive lineman George Johnson — who got credit for his 3rd sack yesterday after only being in town for the past 2 weeks.

But I wanted to make sure that Rankins got a chance to make the 'biggest winners' list before the end of the season since he stood out so often yesterday (including his sack of Falcons QB "Matty Ice").

The Saints' 2nd year defensive tackle and their top pick in the 2016 Draft, Rankins doesn't get the notoriety of his more popular defensive teammates; but his solid and steady play throughout the season and once again yesterday is a big part of the Saints' improvement this year from a 7-win team last season to an 11 (and probably 12)-win team this year.

Davison meanwhile might have made the "signature play" of the entire season for the Saints defense, when he met Falcons RB Devonta Freeman head-on and stripped him of the ball inside the 5-yard line.

The Saints recovered the fumble and the takeaway was part of a huge momentum shift in the 3rd quarter that would ultimately lead to the win.

 

#6. ALVIN KAMARA, RUNNING BACK

(Butch Dill/AP)

Make no mistake about it: Kamara has had a fantastic year and looks to be a possible NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award winner at this point; but yesterday wasn't one of his better days actually, at least stats-wise.

The Falcons obviously made stopping Kamara their defense's #1 priority going into the game, and it showed in the numbers as the 22-year old sensation finished with 12 carries for "only" 32 yards and 7 receptions for 58 more yards.

But Kamara's presence still FORCED the Falcons to devote coverage to him, which in turn was able to free up other aspects of the Saints offense.

 

#5. MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK

Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Some guys have all the luck, and some guys are just plain good at what they do — and Saints rookie CB and likely NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore is both of those things.

Lattimore had an interception for the 3rd straight game yesterday, raising his season-leading total to (5) interceptions on the year. But it was HOW he intercepted it that will be remembered forever by an entire new generation of Saints fans.

Laying flat on his stomach after having fallen to the turf while trying to tackle Falcons WR Marvin Hall, Lattimore simply was at the right place at the right time, when Hall was unable to pull in the reception and the ball landed PERFECTLY right on Lattimore's ass.

Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams then got an assist on the play after he helped to make sure that the ball remained on Lattimore's butt, before Lattimore was able to quickly turn around and pull the ball into his hands.

It came with just 50 seconds remaining in the 1st half and killed a potential Falcons scoring drive which the Saints turned into 7 points of their own a few plays later. And as a result: now the "butt pick" will become a part of the long-storied history of the Saints-Falcons rivalry forever.

Said Lattimore to reporters after the game: "It's the best interception I've ever had. I must be living right."

He's not kidding. Maybe someone ought to ask him if he has the winning Powerball numbers in mind, for this coming Wednesday Night.

 

#4.  DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK

(Butch Dill/AP)

There won't be any awards ceremonies or blockbuster book publishing deals made over the year that Saints 17-year veteran and future 1st-ballot NFL Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees has had in 2017, but you can rest assured that he could care less.

Brees right now is "living in the moment" — surrounded all of a sudden by a brand new infusion of young talent that has unexpectedly given him another SEVERAL seasons worth of chances at winning another Super Bowl before he retires.

He no longer has to "sling" the ball 50-plus times in a game thanks to a great running game behind him and backed up by a Top 10 defense, and his ONLY responsibility now is to play efficient and mistake-free football.

Yesterday's numbers weren't particularly "flashy" (21 of 28 passes for 239 yards with 1 TD and an interception), but he did manage to hit on the offense's biggest play of the game when he hit WR Ted Ginn Jr. on a 54-yard bomb near the end of the 1st half.

But he still had a great day in another aspect: which was when his 1st quarter pass completion to Mark Ingram allowed him to join Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as the only NFL quarterbacks to ever surpass 70,000 career passing yards.

 

#3. TED GINN, JR., WIDE RECEIVER

(AP Photo/Bill Feig)

Ginn returned to the line-up yesterday after missing last week's win over the Jets with an injury, and made his presence felt immediately with a 15-yard run on a reverse in the 1st quarter; followed by a 3rd-down reception to set up a field goal in the 2nd quarter.

Then he BLEW AWAY Falcons CB Desmond Trufant to haul in a 54-yard bomb for a TD right near the end of the 1st half, that gave the entire Saints team a HUGE shot of momentum going in the locker room.

Ginn did have a bad moment when he allowed a Brees pass to slip from his hands where it got intercepted by Falcons LB Deion Jones, but other than that one bad play Ginn still had a significant impact.

The numbers won't reflect it (4 catches, 76 yards), but it was Ginn who was the biggest "difference maker" for the Saints offense in yesterday's win.

 

#2. CAM JORDAN, DEFENSIVE END

Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Jordan's selection to the Pro Bowl last week was certainly well-deserved, but yesterday he showed just why he is a SERIOUS contender to be named 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Jordan got 2 more sacks along with 3 tackles to add to his gaudy numbers this season, but it was simply his dominating presence that affected this game for the Atlanta offense and QB Matt Ryan.

Although Ryan's numbers weren't exactly horrible (288 yards, 1 TD and an interception), it was clearly evident that he seemed to be looking for Jordan on nearly every drop-back in the pocket, which didn't allow Ryan to get comfortable or establish a rhythm.

When a player can impact a game just by his SHEER PRESENCE alone, it makes him extremely valuable — and it's the reason why Jordan's career year in 2017 just might equate to a possible NFL Defensive Player of the Year selection.

 

#1. MANTI TE'O, LINEBACKER

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

If there will be any one player from the Saints defense in yesterday's game that you would look back at one day in 10 years from now and say to yourself "that's what I remember from that day", it would UNQUESTIONABLY be Saints linebacker Manti Te'o.

Yesterday, the 26-year old Te’o probably played THE best game of his entire 5-year NFL career; and brought to mind the tenacious and hard-hitting style of play that made him an All-American at Notre Dame University.

Against the Falcons he set the tone for the entire game early in the 1st quarter, with two tackles for a loss. Then of course there was his "Johnny-on-the-spot" fumble recovery early in the 3rd quarter, which changed the entire complexion of the game and gave the ball (and the momentum) back to the Saints.

In all, Te'o finished the day with 4 tackles (1 assisted) and was given a 85.1 rating by the folks over at Pro Football Focus. Additionally, PFF had Te'o as their 3rd highest graded LB in the entire League this week.

As noted by Canal Street Chronicles managing editor and beat writer John Hendrix, Te'o has missed only 5 tackles all year, and yesterday he generated a stop on over 10% of his run defense snaps against the hated Dirty Birds.

But let's first acknowledge what Te'o's performance means for the Saints defense as they head into the Playoffs. 

The loss of starting middle linebacker A.J. Klein was thought to be a HUGE blow to the Saints defense's post-season hopes, but Te'o's sudden emergence now gives them a sense of confidence that perhaps wasn't completely always there, prior to his outstanding performance yesterday.

Yes, Te'o still has some potentially "fatal flaws" in his game (like pass coverage) going forward, but if he can maintain the level of play that he's had since Klein was lost for the season, the Saints defense is not nearly in bad of shape in the "middle" of their Front 7, as it was previously believed.............

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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