Saints fall just short of what would have been a special victory
The New Orleans Saints had a lot going against them in their game Sunday.
To start with, they didn’t have their most productive ball carrier and pass catcher in Alvin Kamara, who was sidelined by a knee injury.
They also were missing the starting left side of their offensive line as well as other key players whose absence has become chronic with long-term injuries.
They were playing perhaps the hottest team in the NFL in Tennessee, though the Titans also were short-handed as Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher, was on injured reserve.
Once the game got started the officials didn’t help with a universally denounced roughing-the-passer call that gifted the Titans with seven points in a game they won by two.
Brian Johnson didn’t help by missing two extra points, though he did make a field goal that was shorter than an extra point.
Despite all of those hurdles the Saints came about as close to winning a game as a team can without actually winning it.
Kinda like last week.
But despite the similarities, the 23-21 loss in Nashville wasn’t as bothersome as the 27-25 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Caesars Superdome seven days earlier.
The Saints played much closer to what could reasonably have been expected from them under the circumstances against the 8-2 Titans than they did in under-performing (with Kamara) against the 4-5 Falcons, who lost 43-3 at Dallas on Sunday.
In last week’s game the Saints played poorly and the Falcons played better in constructing a 24-6 lead with less than 11 minutes remaining in the game.
Then Trevor Siemian drove the Saints to touchdowns on drives of 66, 54 and 43 yards in a span of 9 minutes and 33 seconds to give them their only lead of the game with 61 seconds left.
But one play – a 64-yard Atlanta completion – led to a decisive field goal as time expired.
Had the Saints not allowed that completion or otherwise prevented the field goal, they would have escaped with a one-point victory that would not have been indicative of which team played better and which one played worse for 60 minutes.
The outcome Sunday could similarly have turned on a single play or two – but in this game, either outcome could have reasonably been considered an accurate reflection of which team played better and which one played worse.
The Saints could have tied the score on a two-point conversion in the final minute, but Adam Trautman false-started and Siemian threw an incompletion to Mark Ingram II, who did his best Kamara impersonation (108 yards from scrimmage and a 13-yard touchdown run) while surpassing Deuce McAllister as the most prolific rusher in franchise history.
They could have tied the score if Johnson, who inexplicably has made all eight of his field-goal attempts and just five of his eight extra point attempts, had made both PATs.
The outcome might have been different if head coach Sean Payton, in one of the least Sean Payton decisions in recent memory, had Johnson kick a 20-yard field (which he made) to cut the deficit to eight with 5:33 left rather than trying for a touchdown from the one-yard line.
We could play coulda, woulda, shoulda in honor of Jim Mora all day, but it won’t change anything.
The bottom line is the disappointment of this loss isn’t that the Saints failed to play up to their standards, which was the case a week ago. The disappointment of this outcome is that it was so close to being such a special victory.
Though neither was good enough to produce a victory, Siemian again showed he is a capable replacement for Jameis Winston and the red-zone defense was superb.
The Saints haven’t lost two games in a row very often during their streak of four consecutive divisions titles.
In fact this current two-game losing streak is just the fourth one in the last five seasons.
The Saints’ 5-4 record is their worst at this point during the last five seasons, but their chances of winning another division title haven’t been damaged as much as much as one might expect.
The Washington Football Team defeated first-place Tampa Bay on Sunday, so the Saints remained only one game behind the defending Super Bowl champions.
They are just one game above .500, but they still control their fate in the division because the NFL is designed to assure that teams rarely clear the bar of mediocrity with a whole lot of space to spare.
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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…