Saints could be at a crossroads in Philadelphia
METAIRIE – It feels like the New Orleans Saints are at a crossroads.
They do have a winning record (5-4), they are just one game behind first-place Tampa Bay in the NFC South, one game ahead of Carolina in the loss column and two ahead of Atlanta in the loss column.
They do control their fate in the division and if the season ended today they would be in the playoffs as a wild card.
And they do have seven games remaining after their visit to Philadelphia on Sunday, so a loss in this game wouldn’t make their post-season aspirations vanish, nor would a victory solidify anything.
And yet …
This season is trending in the wrong direction after consecutive two-point losses that head coach Sean Payton called “gut-wrenching.” The team is missing several of its most important players because of injury.
Another loss, to an average Eagles team, would continue the trend with a short week looming before a game against a well-above-average Buffalo team (6-3) on Thanksgiving night and a game against a well-above-average Dallas team (7-2) on the following Thursday.
That’s three games 12 days.
But a win against the Eagles would stop the trend, provide a larger margin for error in the back-to-back games against the heavyweights and provide a greater opportunity for upward mobility in the final five games – against the Jets, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Panthers and Falcons, who are a combined 20-28.
The Saints have let two very winnable games get away in uncharacteristic fashion the last two weeks.
“When you look at the tape, we actually played those games how we needed to play them,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “One or two plays didn’t go our way, and we didn’t get the result that we want. We’re this close to being where we want to be.
“I think we feel probably more upset at some of the mistakes that we made, as opposed to some of the plays that they made. So we eliminate our own mental mistakes, then we’re right where we want to be.”
It was nearly a year ago when the Saints last went to Philadelphia and a bunch of trends stopped.
The Saints had won nine games in a row, but lost to the Eagles 24-21.
The Saints had been undefeated in the eight previous games they had played in 2019 and 2020 without injured Drew Brees.
And prior to that game the Saints had played an NFL-record 55 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Philadelphia produced two – Miles Sanders rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Jalen Hurts, making his first NFL start, rushed for 106 yards.
Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata pointed that 82 of the Eagles’ 246 rushing yards came on one of Sanders’ touchdown runs.
“Other than that,” Onyemata said, “we did a pretty decent job.”
Sanders has missed the last three games because of an ankle injury, but he returned to practice this week and seems to have a good chance of playing this week.
Even in his absence, the Eagles have averaged 208.7 rushing yards the last three weeks as first-year coach Nick Sirianni has made a greater commitment to the run game.
Hurts, who leads the team with 547 rushing yards, Jordan Howard, former Saint Boston Scott, and Kenny Gainwell have contributed to the surge.
The Saints were unable to sack Hurts on any of his 30 pass attempts last season, but in addition to being a scrambler he’s also a quarterback who runs like a running back – and the Eagles feature that skill.
“How deadly he is with his elusiveness to scramble and extend plays is as good as we’ll see,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
Other trends are favorable for the Saints.
The Eagles, who defeated Denver 30-13 last week, have not won consecutive games this season. They have not won a home game since beating the Saints in Week 14 last season.
But in the loss to the Falcons two weeks ago, the Saints fell behind by 18 points in the fourth quarter and didn’t score a touchdown until less than eight minutes remained in the game.
In the loss to the Titans last week they fell behind by 14 points in the third quarter, but had a chance to tie the score with less than two minutes left. A false start on Adam Trautman set them back and the two-point try, which was necessary because Brian Johnson had missed two extra points, also failed.
“We’ve got to play better early,” quarterback Trevor Siemian said.
Along the way Deonte Harris lost a fumble on the second-half kickoff that led to a Tennessee touchdown. It was the second week in a row that the Saints were minus-1 in turnovers and didn’t have a takeaway. (Siemian’s fumble led to a Falcons touchdown.)
If the Saints are going to buck the trend of the last two games, a good start would be to not only start better bit also reduce the number of self-inflicted wounds.
“I think (Payton) has a gift for giving the team the right message at the right time,” Siemian said. “Probably just as good as any head coach I’ve been around. I think there’s no doubt when we get into a team meeting where our compass is going to be set as a team and the guys feel that.”
Perhaps that compass can point the team in a different direction than the one it’s heading in.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…