A 72% (13 out of 18) conversion rate given up to the opponent's offense on 3rd Down. 101 rushing yards allowed in the 1st Half alone. A fumbled punt. A long TD pass surrendered in the game's final moments. In the NFL, those are the sort of things that will get you beat on any given Sunday during the regular season, and it damn sure will get you beat in the month of January in the Playoffs.
That's the current dilemma faced by the newly-crowned 2017 NFC South Division Champion New Orleans Saints, as they move forward towards their opening Playoff game this upcoming Sunday evening at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against their division rivals, the Carolina Panthers — whom the Saints beat both times in the regular season, as well.
At this point, we know this much: which is that the Saints are as good as ANY team in the NFC, and are perfectly capable of making a run all the way to Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis on February 4th.
If the Rams beat the Falcons next week and the Saints beat Carolina, then the Saints face a Philadelphia Eagles team without quarterback Carson Wentz for a trip to the NFC title game. On "paper", that looks much easier than facing the Falcons and Minnesota Vikings in the first two rounds.
Meaning that if the Saints can get 'hot' and begin "running the table" from here on out, they will have a more than better chance of making it all the way to the sport's biggest stage for the 2nd time in franchise history.
However, for the sake of ruining the day for Saints fans, this idea that the Saints can pull off making a run all the way to the Super Bowl comes with a caveat; or if you choose to take it that way: a warning.
And that warning is that the Saints better start playing their "A-Game" in ALL THREE phases (defense, offense, special teams) from this point on, or else their hopes for winning a 2nd Super Bowl are going to come to an end really quick.
In other words: the Saints better start playing "January Football".
What's "January Football", you ask?
It's playing fundamentally sound and mistake-free; and executing a set game-plan against that week's opponent, as efficiently and successfully as possible during the NFL's post-season.
And it's all done to achieve the ultimate goal: the chance to compete for a World Championship in the month of February.
Now to be completely fair: the Saints currently have 18 — yes, EIGHTEEN — players currently on injured reserve, which is the highest number of any of the 12 teams that made this season's Playoffs, as pointed out by Canal Street Chronicles film analyst / NFL Draft expert Walter "Deuce" Windham yesterday.
#Saints enter the playoffs with the most players on IR of any playoff team. More than other 2 NFC South teams combined:
— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) January 1, 2018
Which obviously means that the Saints haven't been playing at full strength, and it just may be the reason why that after the Saints went on an 8-game winning streak in the middle of the season, they went (3-3) in their final 6 games.
But now it's time for "January Football", and nobody is going to feel sorry for poor ol' New Orleans just because they're missing practically half of their team with injuries.
This is the Pros, and not Pee Wee or Pop Warner football for little kids.
The Saints still have to line up and play the games, no matter who they decide to put out there.
As a testament to that fact: the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots had the 2nd highest amount (14) of injured players on IR among the 12 Playoff teams according to Deuce Windham's list, and they're the #1 Playoff seed over in the AFC.
And not once have you heard the Patriots or their fans complain about all of the injuries they've had to endure. They simply just line up and PLAY BALL.
Which is exactly what the Saints have done as well; sometimes with great success (with impressive wins over Playoff teams Buffalo, Carolina (twice), and Atlanta) and other times with not-so-great results including the Saints' last 3 road games (losses away from the Superdome to the Rams, Falcons, and the lowly-but-tough Buccaneers).
But let's not make the mistake of putting all of the blame upon the Saints' less-than-spectacular "final stretch" of the season, just on injuries alone.
Even missing some of their very best players at key positions (particularly on defense), the Saints are fully capable of beating any team in the NFL right now.
But when they face a team as good or perhaps even better than them, they have to go out and play almost flawless, perfect football for 60 minutes.
As we've seen in recent weeks in games against the Jets at home (the Saints actually won that game in spite of themselves) and this past Sunday's loss at Tampa, the Saints in recent weeks have consistently played very inconsistent football.
It's the reason why they only had a (3-3) record down the stretch, and almost a (2-4) record had they not pulled out the win against an over-matched-but-scrappy New York Jets team.
In the NFL, the margin for error is a very small one, and very often the difference between winning and losing is the team that makes LESS mistakes.
That — in a nutshell — is what playing "January Football" is all about.
If you fail to do it, then you are DONE.
Season's over, and pack your bags.
For the Saints as they head into the 3rd meeting of the season with the Panthers and with their Super Bowl hopes on the line now every weekend from here on out, the goal should be a simple one.
Which is to play to the very best of their abilities, both as individuals and as a collective team, and "let the chips fall where they may".
One thing that's for certain:
If the Saints can play "January Football" for the next 3 weeks in a row, we'll see them get to play a game in February, for the 2nd time in team history.........