It was said that one NFL team beating another NFL team 3 times in one season wasn't impossible but could still prove to be a difficult task, and yesterday for the New Orleans Saints both things turned out to be true.
The #4 seed Saints survived a close call with their division rival Carolina Panthers by a score of 31-26 in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at the Superdome, and now will move on in the NFL Playoffs next Sunday evening to face the #2 seed Minnesota Vikings — winners in 11 of their last 12 games — in the Divisional Round.
The Vikings were (7-1) at U.S. Bank Stadium during the 2017 regular season, which obviously included the season-opening 29-19 victory against the Saints back during Week #1 in September.
And if you throw in the fact that the Saints have won only 3 of 16 games ever in Minneapolis EVER in their 51-year history of the franchise, the Saints' road to the Super Bowl will not be an easy one.
But the Saints will worry about Minnesota later, and for now can simply enjoy the satisfaction of having given their fans a nerve-wracking but exciting finish to their home schedule on the year.
With all of that in mind, here are the Saints News Network's "biggest winners and losers" from yesterday's 31-26 Wild Card win over Carolina and please keep in mind: the "biggest losers" every single week are Saints players whose poor / below average individual performance or costly mistake (fumble, blown coverage, penalty) potentially could have cost the team a win.
No one thinks of them as "losers", otherwise....
THE BIGGEST LOSERS
#5. CRAIG ROBERTSON, LINEBACKER
Robertson actually had a pretty good game (5 total tackles, 4 assisted and a couple of QB pressures on Panthers QB Cam Newton on some blitzes), so why does he make the "biggest losers" list?
Quite simply because he got TORCHED in pass coverage by Carolina rookie RB Christian McCaffrey on a 56-yard catch-and-run midway in the 4th quarter that allowed Carolina to close the gap to 5 points with 4:09 remaining in the contest.
THERE GOES @RUN__CMC!
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2018
Now let's be fair: not too many LB's in the entire League would be capable of keeping up with the speedy McCaffrey, so Robertson gets the nod for effort. It was simply a matter of Robertson being caught in the "wrong place at the wrong time", and Carolina made him pay for it.
#4. KEN CRAWLEY, CORNERBACK
It's certainly been a mostly successful season for Crawley, although he's had his moments when he seems to regress or "fall back" on occasion, which is typical of some young NFL cornerbacks in only their 2nd season.
But this is NFL Playoff time, and those little instances of rookie mistakes that are still being made can be downright costly at this point of a team's attempt to win a championship.
Crawley was great on some plays (like deflecting a pass intended for Panthers TE Greg Olsen at the goal line for an key incompletion on 3rd down), but not-so-great on others like when he got beat on twice by Panthers WR Kaelin Clay — one on which Clay dropped a sure-handed touchdown pass on 3rd down, and another one where Crawley made contact with him before the ball arrived and simply decided to take the pass interference call rather than give up the deep score.
Again: Crawley has been solid for the majority of what has been a "magical" season for New Orleans, but he'll need to tighten things up a bit moving forward, especially if the Saints hope to keep playing in these Playoffs beyond next week's contest against the Vikings in Minneapolis.
#3. BRANDON COLEMAN, WIDE RECEIVER
It's almost hard to believe that prior to a month ago, Saints 3rd year WR Brandon Coleman had NEVER fumbled the football even once, in his professional career.
But after yesterday's near costly giveaway, Coleman now has fumbled 3 times dating back to the Week #15 win over the Jets; although fortunately for him none of the fumbled balls have cost the Saints a victory as a direct result.
Brandon Coleman better be walking around the facility with a football tucked all fuckin week
— 🅱️🅱️🅱️loods (@TrapGawdd) January 8, 2018
Coleman was stripped from behind by Carolina safety Kurt Coleman (no relation), but was fortunate that Saints RB Mark Ingram (himself no stranger to fumbling issues) was right there to make the recovery for New Orleans, allowing them to maintain possession.
The bottom line is that while it didn't "hurt" the Saints and they went on to win the game and advance to the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, it potentially COULD have had absolutely disastrous consequences — which earns Coleman another trip to our "biggest losers" list.
#2. THE SAINTS RUNNING GAME
It was pretty obvious that Carolina's #1 priority coming into yesterday's game was for their stout defense to "shut down" the NFL's top-rated RB tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, and they succeeded mightily in that regard.
For what was probably was the first time dating back to the beginning of the 2017 regular season, the Saints running game was completely stuffed, and the Panthers snuffed out nearly every attempt by the Saints to establish any sort of rhythm throughout the contest in that regard.
Combined, Ingram and Kamara ran the ball 22 times, for a season-low 41 yards rushing. That's about as good as it gets for any NFL defense, especially as talented as both running backs are.
The loss of starting left guard Andrus Peat to a broken fibula certainly didn't help out matters, but the Panthers defense swarmed and attacked the Saints at every opportunity; and what they were able to do will certainly serve as a "blueprint" on how to stop Ingram and Kamara for other defenses like Minnesota next week, for the remainder of these NFL Playoffs.
#1. THE SAINTS 3rd DOWN OFFENSE — AGAIN
As you already know if you're a Saints fan, the offense has been struggling in recent weeks to convert on 3rd Down, and after yesterday's game it's become obvious that this problem isn't going to simply just go away or get better with defenses like Minnesota and possibly Philadelphia, New England, or Pittsburgh's, still left to face in the Playoffs.
The Saints actually were somewhat successful in converting them early on, but only because they avoided 3rd down situations while building a 21-9 lead by halftime. However, they struggled yet again in the 2nd half to convert and ended up finishing 2 out of 8 (only a 25% success rate), while the Panthers on the other hand were able to converted 8 of their 17 total attempts for just over 50%.
As a direct result, every chance that the Saints got to "blow the game wide open" was thwarted, and it's what forced the Saints defense to have to step up and win the game at the very end.
The Saints ongoing struggles with this issue absolutely cannot happen again next Sunday evening in Minneapolis against the Vikings, or else the Saints will be watching the Super Bowl on TV instead of playing in it.
THE BIGGEST WINNERS
#5. VONN BELL, SAFETY
It's only fair that we include THE BIGGEST PLAY of the entire game on our "biggest winners" list, which was the 2nd to last play of the game on a 4th down and 23 for the Panthers at the Saints 34 yard line.
It was 2nd year Saints safety Vonn Bell who gets the due recognition for his outstanding effort on the game-winning play, in which he blitzed Newton "straight up the gut" of the Panthers O-Line and had an unimpeded path directly to the quarterback.
Newton attempted to turn around and avoid the sack from Bell by scrambling backwards, but thanks to Cam Jordan (who had beaten his man and was also closing in fast) coming in from the other side, both Saints defenders were able to bring Newton down to the turf to essentially end the game with 1 second remaining on the game clock.
Vonn Bell ices it for the New Orleans Buckeyes pic.twitter.com/2bU2Go7SLm
— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) January 8, 2018
Credit Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen for the gutsy call, and Bell for making the game's biggest play in a contest that was full of them.
“The coaches wanted to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands fast,” Bell said to reporters in the locker room afterwards. “They dialed it up and I said, ‘Go make a play. I made the play for the last one, the one that counts," he said.
And "make a play", you did Mr. Bell. Well done.
#4. TED GINN, JR, WIDE RECEIVER
Had it not been for Bell's play at the end of the game, then the "biggest play" of the game for the Saints certainly came in late in the 1st quarter with the score tied 0-0, and immediately after Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a "chip shot" 25-yard field goal attempt.
On 2nd down and 10 at their own 20, Brees took the snap in the shotgun formation and found veteran Saints wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. open DEEP in the Panthers secondary, after he had gotten behind Panthers CB James Bradberry. Ginn caught the ball in stride and then outraced the Panthers secondary to the end zone.
Ted Ginn: Still fast.
80-yard touchdown gives the Saints a 7-0 lead over the Panthers.pic.twitter.com/XoTuRQzUyB
— Eleven Warriors (@11W) January 7, 2018
"You watch that play closely on film, Drew kind of shuffled quickly to his right and found Ginn behind the coverage," Saints head coach Sean Payton said to reporters in his post-game press conference afterwards. "It was a heck of a play by him."
Payton's assertion was that Ginn was not the first read on that play, and credit Brees for finding him. But also let's give some love to Ginn — who has been a KEY ADDITION to the Saints offense this year when many had questioned whether or not he would "fit in" with the team.
Ginn finished with 4 receptions for 115 yards, and will continue to be a viable deep threat for New Orleans as they hopefully keep advancing forward for the remainder of the Playoffs.
#3. MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER
It's certainly no great shock to anyone reading this that Thomas made the "biggest winners" list, especially after he caught another 8 passes for 131 yards on a day when the Saints certainly needed the passing game to compensate for a running game that as we mentioned: got completely STUFFED by the Panthers defensive Front 7.
Thomas' biggest play was a 46-yard reception late in the 4th quarter to just inside of the Panthers 5-yard line, that eventually set up what would be the winning score by Saints RB Alvin Kamara.
In the locker room after the game was over, Thomas said that when he noticed the Panthers playing with one safety deep instead of their usual two, he was more than ready to take advantage of it.
“You’re licking your chops with a quarterback like Drew Brees and the talent we have. We knew what we had to do, and it was on the receivers.”
No Saints receiver did it any better than Thomas, and the 2nd year star out of Ohio State is quickly emerging as one of the very best players at his position in the entire NFL and definitely in these Playoffs after the opening Wild Card round.
#2. CAM JORDAN, DEFENSIVE END
If Thomas wasn't a shock to see on the "biggest winners" list, then you likely were EXPECTING to see Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan on this list, and rightfully so.
Besides being a part of the play along with Vonn Bell that decided the game (what a surprise), Jordan also took the time to DOMINATE Panthers offensive left tackle Ryan Kalil.
Jordan finished with 3 tackles (one for loss), a sack and 2 passes defensed / batted away. He also made one of the most important plays of the entire contest late in the 4th quarter when a near-sack resulted in intentional grounding on Newton; which eventually set up the 4th-down-and-23 situation in which Bell got the game's deciding sack to finish off Carolina's season.
Just another "day at the office" for Jordan, who you'd have to think now has emerged as a solid favorite among the candidates for the 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award that will be announced next month on the night before the Super Bowl.
#1. DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK
We all knew that at some point, a team would finally figure out a way to stop the "runaway train" that has become the Saints running game this year, that saw RB's Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara become the first tandem ever to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season and also become the first pair of running back teammates selected to the Pro Bowl together in at least 42 years.
And that's obviously what the Panthers defense was able to do, but by doing so they eventually "picked their poison"; meaning that by selling out to stop the run, it would make them VULNERABLE in pass defense, which isn't a good idea against Saints future Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees.
“If a team’s going to do that, then obviously I feel like with the matchups we have outside, there should be opportunities,” Brees said to reporters in his post-game press conference. “You still have to have a level of patience and take advantage of them when they do come around. I think what we’ve shown offensively is we have a lot of ways to be effective, a lot of weapons to spread the ball around.”
Brees completed 23 of 33 passes for 376 yards with two touchdowns, and had a QBR of 115.2 while completing 69.7% of his throws yesterday, many of them with pin-point and precision accuracy.
Yes, there was that questionable 4th down and 2 pass-play near the end of the game which was intercepted by Panthers safety Mike Adams, but that was the only negative aspect of Brees' performance overall with the exception of the 3rd Down conversion issues.
The fact is that despite only being a week away from his 39th birthday (a week from today), Brees is STILL one of the sport of Pro Football's "elite" QB's — and the reason why the Saints are still a legitimate threat to win a Super Bowl, as they head to Minnesota to face the Vikings next week...............