Saints don’t need playoff spot to validate one of their best seasons ever
The New Orleans Saints aren’t going to the playoffs.
But that’s merely a technicality.
And sometimes technicalities can cloud perspective.
The Saints did everything they could do Sunday to get into the playoffs. They beat the Falcons 30-20 in Atlanta to handle their half of a parlay they needed to snag the final wild-card berth in the NFC.
For much of the afternoon and early evening, it looked like the Rams would provide the second half of the parlay by defeating the 49ers in Los Angeles.
But the Rams squandered a 17-0 second-quarter lead and a 24-17 lead in the final moments of the fourth quarter and lost 27-24 in overtime.
So the 10-7 Niners are off to Dallas next weekend and the 9-8 Saints won’t play again until September.
But it’s hard to think of any other Saints season – other than the 2009 season that ended with a Super Bowl title – that ended as satisfactorily as this one did.
This was the Saints second consecutive de facto playoff game. Playoff games are unique because of their must-win, do-or-die, win-or-go-home nature.
They reveal the character of the team, players, coaches and programs. They define a season regardless of what has gone before.
The Saints won their first playoff game last season and lost their second. In 2020 they lost their first playoff game. In 2019 they won their first game and lost their second, just as they had in 2018.
Those last four teams were NFC South champions that entered the post-season with brighter prospects than this team would have had as a wild-card team.
This Saints team entered its last three games knowing that the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs, whom the Saints swept this season, had ended their reign.
After losing to Miami two days after Christmas, the Saints had two games left – both of which were must-win, do-or-die, win-or-go-home deals, de facto playoff games.
The Saints won both – beating Carolina 18-10 in the Caesars Superdome last Sunday before the victory against the Falcons.
This team – which was challenged by more adversity than any of its 54 predecessors, save for the 2005 Hurricane Katrina team – won more must-win games than any of those most-recent four division champion teams did.
Sure the 2021 Panthers and the 2021 Falcons aren’t the equal of the playoff teams the Saints faced from 2017-2020, but teams and seasons ultimately are judged by how their results align with reasonable expectations of the team’s ability under the circumstances they encounter.
These Saints entered training camp having to replace the most prolific passer in NFL history after Drew Brees’ retirement.
Jameis Winston officially won the job as Brees’ successor in the early days of the Saints’ month-long displacement to the Dallas-Fort Worth area because of Hurricane Ida.
Ida also forced the season opener against Green Bay to be moved from the Superdome to Jacksonville, Fla., leaving the Saints with seven games in their home stadium while half the NFL teams had nine such games and everybody else except the Saints had eight.
It must be pointed out that the Saints have no one to blame but themselves for losing an 11-point fourth-quarter lead in a home loss to a bad Giants team and failing to hold a lead they took with 61 seconds left in a loss to the below-average Falcons in the Superdome.
But those stumbles are easily balanced by the blowout of the top-seeded Packers in the season opener and the shutout of Tom Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champ Bucs in the absence of head coach Sean Payton and a slew of other key people last month.
The Saints lost an inordinate number of players, including Winston, elite wide receiver Michael Thomas, Pro Bowl kicker Wil Lutz and the majority of its starting offensive line to long-term injuries.
A series of coaches, including Payton, and a bunch of players missed games because of multiple spikes in COVID.
This team endured a five-game losing streak, partly because of all those absences and partly because of inadequate execution at key moments. But they followed those five losses with four wins in their final five games – even amid the most severe short-handedness of the season.
The disappointment of the Rams’ inability to finish against the Niners should not detract from how the Saints finished.
Payton has never been honored as NFL Coach of the Year and there has been much talk – at least locally – that he deserves such consideration this season.
The guess here is that he’s not going to win that award this season either.
What’s more important than that award is that this season validated Payton’s status as one of the elite NFL head coaches of his generation.
What’s also important is proof that there is life – and reason for optimism – even after the retirement of the best player in franchise history.
So the playoffs begin next weekend and the Saints won’t be playing any more.
But it’s doubtful that additional games were going to significantly enhance what this team had already accomplished.
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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…