Saints’ first day of 2023 an improvement on 2022
Saints 20, Eagles 10 with 5:27 to play
The pick-six that did it:pic.twitter.com/rrRWdJVhqs
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 1, 2023
The first day of 2023 was better for the New Orleans Saints than 2022 was.
The Saints played their most complete game of the season as they defeated the Eagles 20-10 in Philadelphia.
It was the third consecutive victory by a 7-9 team that hadn’t won two consecutive games until its last two games of 2022.
It was a textbook example of complementary football by a team for which complementary football has been a key to its recent improvement.
Complementary football doesn’t mean simply playing well in all three phases; it requires a symbiotic nature that produces a team effort that exceeds the mere sum of the performances of the three individual units.
The Saints were balanced on offense, rushing for 130 yards (including 74 by Alvin Kamara and 46 by Taysom Hill) and passing for 183. They converted 7 of 16 third downs and their only fourth-down attempt, which enabled them to possess the ball for 37 minutes and four seconds against a team that had scored 34 points a week earlier.
Andy Dalton set a career-best when he completed his first 13 passes to start the game. The selection of high-percentage passes by coordinator Pete Carmichael, Dalton’s decision-making and accuracy as well as the receivers’ execution contributed to the offensive success.
Meanwhile the defense forced a three-and-out on Philadelphia’s first four possessions. It didn’t allow a first down until the final seconds of the first half when the Eagles gained 40 of their paltry 61 pre-halftime yards but never threatened to score because of the fading clock.
In the second half the Saints’ offense didn’t move the ball as well as it had in the first half and the Eagles offense moved it better than it had. That enabled the home team to eventually crawl within 13-10 before Marshon Lattimore, returning from a 10-game absence due to an abdominal injury, made an 11-yard Pick-6 to put the game away.
Along the way, Will Lutz made both of his field-goal attempts (including a 54-yarder), Rashid Shaheed, whose 58-yard pass reception from Dalton set up one of Lutz’s field goals, had more than twice as many return yards as his Philadelphia counterparts (45-22).
And Blake Gillikin had a season-high five punts that were downed inside the Eagles’ 20 while his counterpart, Brett Kern, had none even though they had the same number of punts (six).
So the offense made sure the defense was well-rested by moving the chains even when it wasn’t scoring and joined with the special teams in giving the defense advantageous field position throughout.
The defense continued to lessen the scoring burden on the offense, holding the opponent to 20 or fewer points for the ninth time in 10 games. The last five opponents have scored 10, 10, 18, 17 and 13 points.
The Saints played from ahead after the first possession of the game ended with Hill’s one-yard touchdown run. Each unit made the other two units’ jobs easier.
The Eagles entered the game with the best record in the NFL (13-2), though they were playing their second consecutive game without injured starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, a strong Most Valuable Player candidate.
They also played without Pro Bowl tackle Lane Johnson, who sustained an abdominal injury last week, starting cornerback Avonte Maddox, who has a toe injury, and former Saints safety CJ Gardner-Johnson, who’s on injured reserve as he recovers from a lacerated kidney.
They lost their star defensive end Josh Sweat, who has 11 sacks this season, to a neck injury on the first possession.
So the team that the Saints beat on Sunday wasn’t the same team that had set the pace in the NFL for nearly four months. But it was still a very good team trying to warp up the NFC’s No 1 seed and the Saints too were playing without several key injured players as they have all season – although the return of Lattimore was clearly significant.
This New Year’s Day was similar to the early days of 2022 for the Saints. On January 2 last year in Week 17 the Saints kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the Panthers 18-10 in the home finale.
That team, like this one, had battled an ordinate number of long-term absences to injured starters to finish strong.
The 2022 team did its part in Week 18, beating the Falcons 30-20 in Atlanta but falling short of the playoffs just minutes later when the 49ers beat the Rams 27-24 in overtime.
Sixteen days later Sean Payton resigned as Saints head coach and a season of uncertainty was followed by an up-and-down season featuring more downs than ups, though things have started to balance at the end.
On this Sunday the Saints took care of business and handled the most unlikely leg of a lengthy two-week parlay that would be necessary to get into the playoffs – either as NFC South champions or as the last wild card.
The Buccaneers rallied to defeat the Panthers 30-24 just a few minutes after the Saints beat the Eagles. That took the division title off the table, but left the Saints in contention for the wild-card spot.
All they needed in order to keep their hopes alive going into Week 18 was for the Vikings to beat the Packers. But the Vikings, like the Rams 357 days earlier, didn’t come through.
So this Saints season will end next Sunday against the Panthers.
But it’s reasonable to say the first day of 2023 was better than any day in 2022.
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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…