In the biggest game of the season the New Orleans Saints came up short against the Carolina Panthers 17-13 in a game that wasn't very aesthetically pleasing. Rain pounded as both defenses dominated for the most part. But it was the struggling Saints offense that was unable to generate enough production to assist in the outcome.
You had the feeling that the first team that produced a second-half touchdown would win. Despite the Saints being that team, it was a late-game answer that put the game out of reach for the Saints.
A subpar outing from Saints quarterback Drew Brees (30-of-44, 281 yards, one TD and two interceptions), that was spearheaded by poor offensive-line play was the primary factor in this defeat. Although the stat sheet will show the Saints ran the ball 30 times for 126 yards, the run game was poorly managed even as it seemed to be unstoppable early—as the Saints used it sporadically.
When the Saints tried to go back to it late, it just wasn't strong enough anymore to milk the clock. The Saints now no longer control their own destiny and must hope for Carolina to lose in Atlanta to the Falcons next week.
This costly loss by the Saints drops their record to 10-5 as they are now on a two-game losing streak. The Saints will now close out the season at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and must hope for things to fall their way.
Here are my takeaways.
Sean Payton coming up small
Much has been bandied about in regard to the Saints' perceived road woes. All of their losses have come on the road where the team seems to have an out-of-body experience as a whole. These last two games (road loss to St. Louis included) were confirmation that the Saints just aren't championship material.
Champions rise to the occasion when conditions are not in their favor regardless of the circumstance, and it all starts at the top.
The philosophy of head coach Sean Payton, in reference to this season, is not conducive to winning on the road. In this particular game, he had one consistent hot hand in running back Mark Ingram, and he chose to not only rotate him but to also do so while putting up the ball 44 times...in a monsoon!
One must wonder if Payton's year-long suspension, last season, was akin to that of a real prison inmate doing a 15-year bid. Payton seems to be operating like he's the coach of 1999 St. Louis Rams! It's almost as if running the ball 50 times in a win would not be as fun as throwing it that many times in a loss.
This column once posed the question if Payton was holding the Saints back from greatness. That question should now be written in statement form—as there's no longer any doubt about it.
Yes, the Saints ran the ball 30 times for 126 yards, but that's normal production for most teams throughout the rest of the league. A team with an offensive coordinator who's firing on all cylinders may have run the ball 50 times—in a game with those types of elements and won going away.
That's especially true if he had Ingram generating 83 yards on 13 carries (6.4 average). This would have been the game to ditch the running-back carousel and ride Ingram all the way to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
The offensive line looked great moving forward to run block, but Payton called about 39 screen passes for a total of minus-19 yards (a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point)!
The Panthers' defensive duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis ate the screen game for lunch. It wasn't one of those high-end restaurant small lunches; it was akin to a cheap buffet out in the West End of Atlanta (my stomach still hurts from that meal).
Listen, if you ever hear an uninformed fan call the screen game a substitute for the run, fall on the floor and cover your ears like a petulant child so you don't have to hear that nonsense. If that's the case, Pierre Thomas would've dominated the game like Ingram, but his five catches for seven yards scream otherwise.
The Saints need new ideas on offense, something that a new offensive coordinator would provide.
A silver lining in this game has to be the play of the Saints defense—for the most part. The Panthers offense was held to 262 total yards, with a great portion of the yardage coming on a 43-yard run by back DeAngelo Williams as well as a 44-yard reception by receiver Steve Smith.
The defense flew to the ball all-game long (until the very end), dished out some serious punishment and did a great job corralling Panthers QB Cam Newton. It's too bad nobody will remember that as the defense couldn't hold on to the end. But it's hard to place blame on a unit that held the Panthers to 10 points with under 1:00 remaining in the game.
But for some odd reason on the final drive by Carolina, the Saints once again chose to go conservative and drop players into coverage rather than forcing the action as they had done for the majority of the game.
This quickly conjured up thoughts of the Saints loss to the New England Patriots where they went conservative at the end as well. And when the Saints finally decided to bring some pressure, safety Michael Jenkins didn't give the best effort merely swiping at Newton as he delivered the game-winning TD.
But as someone who has played on that side of the ball, sometimes you're only as successful as your offense. And the offense, starting with the coach, let the team down in this one.
Teams have proven that if you can take Saints tight end Jimmy Graham away, more than likely the Saints will go away. This is usually due to the Saints not having a consistent receiver behind him. Over the past few games, that has not been the case.
Receiver Marques Colston has broken out of his season-long slump and performed more like the greatest receiver in Saints history—as he will be recognized whenever he hangs up his cleats. This game looked like more of the same—Graham on a milk carton and Colston dominating early.
Graham eventually woke up, at least for a drive, and Colston went back on a milk carton in the second half when he was needed the most. Colston's totals of 63 yards on five catches isn't bad, but considering most, if not all, of the production came in the first half—you can see how the results were derived in this contest.
Moving forward, it's quite clear that for the Saints to succeed, Colston will play a huge part in it. Colston is a savvy vet who has proven he can beat single coverage in the past; he will undoubtedly need to do that against the very best of the best in the playoffs.
With Graham in a bit of a slump of his own, it's up for Payton and Co. to manufacture ways for this offense to produce.
A lot of people like to call Newton Superman, but it's Brees who often does the best Clark Kent impression with his play. When Brees is at home, he's undoubtedly Superman, but on the road...not so much.
Brees has made some of the most egregious throws of his career, on the road, this season. He often locks in on receivers, forces the action and generally looks off away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In his defense, he has had to overcome his coaching, and that hasn't been more evident than this particular game. Payton decided he'd finally had enough of left tackle Charles Brown who has played poorly for the majority of the season, opting to finally replace him with rookie tackle Terron Armstead.
This would've been the way to go earlier in the season. But hanging Armstead out to dry, against one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, was a form of football suicide. Armstead delivered by far the worst performance of a season filled with horrific performances—by allowing three sacks to Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.
He also contributed two penalties on false starts and allowed a ton of pressure Brees' way. Considering Brown dominated Hardy just two weeks prior, allowing him to only generate one total tackle, you can plainly see the discrepancy.
Coach Payton needs to do some serious soul searching after calling out the entire team after last week's loss. The answer to his questions may lie in the mirror.