All good things must come to an end.
With a 23-15 final score, the New Orleans Saints were denied the chance of advancing in the playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks. The final score wasn't quite indicative of just how the results were derived.
Seattle controlled the game from pillar to post mostly due to Saints' own undoing. The Saints defense showed up in a major way, along with the run game, but it was future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees who was unable to rise to the occasion of the big moment.
While Brees must shoulder a great deal of the blame for this loss, he undoubtedly got by with a little help from his friends. Turnovers and mistakes were the theme throughout the majority of the game.
The Seahawks now await the winner of the contest between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers. The Saints have a bright future ahead; they just need a few tweaks to their scheme—and personnel—and they will be right back in the mix. But for now, they are left to pick up the pieces.
Here are my takeaways.
It's sacrilegious to ever suggest Brees didn't play up to his normal standards—especially when his stat line reads: 24-of-43, 309 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions. It's an age-old adage that says numbers never lie, but Brees' stats may be the exception to the rule.
Brees was the albatross that kept the Saints from winning this contest. The defense did a masterful job limiting Seahawks QB Russell Wilson to a career-low 103 passing yards (zero TDs), while the run game consistently gashed the Seahawks for 108 total yards on 26 carries (4.2 average).
But it was Brees' inability to hit open receivers, coupled with a rare frantic-like nature in the pocket, that disallowed the Saints the ability to truly compete. Fifty-two of his total yards need to be rescinded by the football gods as they came off a horrendous throw that was deflected into the hands of receiver Robert Meachem.
That particular play would've more than likely ended the Saints' season—and would've been apropos—as Brees has played average at best on the road this season. You have to think the media's constant badgering, some by yours truly, about his road woes have finally gotten to him.
When you factor in that he may have won the "most valuable home player" award if it existed, his subpar play on the road becomes even more puzzling. Moving forward, head coach Sean Payton can do Brees a favor by varying the tempo and not giving the defense a chance to adjust.
In addition, pre-snap penalties and burned timeouts continue to plague the Saints on the road. For a high-powered offense, scoring 15 points is embarrassing. This game will undoubtedly induce changes from both Brees and Payton this offseason.
Coming into the season who would've thought the defense would outperform the offense on the season as a whole?
Things that make you go hmmm.
All season, this column has consistently challenged Payton to run the ball, much to the chagrin of a lot of the fans. Most are under the impression the Saints don't have the talent to operate with balance and should continue to lean on the aerial attack that New Orleans is known for.
After seeing running backs Mark Ingram (10 carries for 49 yards) and Khiry Robinson (13 carries for 57 yards) run through the Seahawks' front seven like poop through a goose, even the naysayers have to be convinced.
Ingram and Robinson are a force to be reckoned with!
Can you imagine if this duo would've been unleashed earlier in the season? It took an injury to fellow back Pierre Thomas to discover something that may make the Saints a major contender for years to come.
Henceforth, the Saints need to make a concerted effort to see that the duo splits close to 30 carries per tilt. When you have two backs averaging well over four yards per attempt (4.9 for Ingram and 4.4 for Robinson), you should feed those beasts.
The run game, and defense, kept the Saints close in a contest where many believed the Saints had little shot at victory. But bloodying the nose of the defense—by way of the run—will keep most teams in the game in today's NFL.
In addition, it will provide Brees with more-than-ideal coverages from secondaries. If the Saints lean on this duo moving forward, they could easily make the transition from finesse to physical. And mostly the physical survive in the playoffs.
Ingram had a horrific fumble, his first since his rookie year, and he dropped a screen pass. With more reps, his confidence will continue to grow and so will his production.
The first time tight end Jimmy Graham appeared on the back of the milk carton was at the hands of Aqib Talib and the New England Patriots. He periodically returned to it in contests against the St. Louis Rams and in the previous meeting with the Seahawks.
Before this tilt Graham was involved in an on-field altercation with members of the Seahawks, per Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated—namely linebacker Bruce Irvin. Graham jawed and flexed and generally looked hyped up...until they kicked the ball off!
Then Graham turtled up and disappeared. For someone who is undoubtedly the biggest matchup nightmare in the NFL, it's unfathomable to think he wouldn't catch a pass until 20 seconds left in the game.
We never see that happen to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski—with whom Graham is often compared. There's no doubt the Seahawks got into his head and took him out of the game. Seahawks end Michael Bennett said that Graham was soft, and the most overrated player in the league, according to Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman.
If Graham wants to be paid like one of the best players in the NFL, which he is, he needs to consistently show up in big games. And instead of jawing with the opponents, he needs to jaw with the coaching staff about getting him involved in the game plan.
It shouldn't be too hard to get the ball to a 6'7", 265-pound beast. At the very least he should get a screen pass or even a reverse just to get him into the action. For a team headed by a couple of geniuses in Payton and Brees, the Saints sure seem to outthink themselves on occasion.
A week after shutting down the No. 1-ranked rushing outfit in the NFL—in the Philadelphia Eagles—the Saints were charged with the task of stopping the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack. But the difference in trying to reel in the Eagles' LeSean McCoy (5'11", 208 lbs) opposed to Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (who's listed at 215 pounds but is clearly closer to 230) is virtually miles apart.
Lynch is the most powerful back in the NFL and can't be taken down by one defender. It takes swarming to the ball to stop "Beast Mode" and the Saints just didn't do that. The Saints gave up 4.6 yards per carry during the regular season and relinquished 5.0 yards per attempt to the Seahawks in this contest.
Lynch finished with 140 yards on 28 carries, capping it off with a 31-yard TD that will undoubtedly be added to his vastly expanding highlight reel. Lynch has been a thorn in the side of the Saints since his famed "Beastquake' run in the 2010 playoffs.
The Saints finished with the No. 2-ranked pass defense but shouldn't be taken seriously until they improve their putrid run defense. The NFC is full of power-run teams that will challenge the Saints to stop the run moving forward.
If you can't stop the run, or run the ball, you need not apply in today's NFL. The Saints undoubtedly have the ability to run; it's now up to the staff to find the correct mix of scheme and personnel to stop the run.
This season has revealed that the Saints roster is full of young talent. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) and Junior Galette (12 sacks) are both under the age of 26. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is 24. Corner Keenan Lewis is 27, while fellow defensive backs Kenny Vaccaro (22) and Malcolm Jenkins (26) have yet to hit their respective primes.
On the offensive side of the ball: Running backs Ingram (24) and Robinson (24) combine with receiver Kenny Stills (21) to give the Saints some serious youthful talent. If injured deep-ball threat Joe Morgan can return to form, the Saints can boast having two of the fastest players in the league among the receiving corps.
But it will be the re-signing of tight end Jimmy Graham (27) that will ensure this team remains a prominent threat in a conference filled with youthful teams. If the Saints were to lose Graham inside of the conference, it would swing the balance of power to whichever team procures his services.
Brees, who turns 35 on Jan. 15, has a few years of elite football left—so the Saints will have the opportunity to have him as the signal-caller. New Orleans does need to fortify its right-tackle situation and No. 2 corner spot. It may behoove the Saints to find inside linebackers who fit a 3-4-based scheme who can cover and fill gaps.
In addition, the acquisition of a No. 1 receiver should be in the cards. Receiver Marques Colston just doesn't possess the athleticism to carry a receiving corps anymore. Other veterans (e.g. receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas) should be jettisoned in an effort to acquire more top-notch talent.
But one thing's for sure, the future is undoubtedly bright for the Black and Gold!
Note: I won't be around to cover the bright future of the Saints. I will be switched over to cover my hometown Atlanta Falcons (I know how much you guys love the Falcons) after this week. Thanks for making my first season at Bleacher Report one to remember. The Saints have awesome and knowledgeable fans whom I will undoubtedly miss. It was fun while it lasted!