Hey, I’m just numb, and exhausted, and I’m sure you all are too.
First, by way of disclaimer, I was at the game, and since the moment it ended I have neither seen, heard nor read anything about it, other than to pore over the various stats to confirm some of what (I thought) I saw. I just didn’t see the point in torturing myself. I haven’t even rewatched the game yet, mostly out of self-preservation. Therefore I am writing at knowing risk of (1) trodding ground already well-covered by many other writers and (2) missing something obvious and actin’ a fool. Hope we’re not wasting anyone’s time, but here goes.
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Most amazing takeaway – how utterly silent 70,000 people can be in a large room. The moment Kyle Rudolph caught that ball in the back of the end zone, the Dome went from “deafening white noise” to one of those experimental “quiet rooms” that are sealed up and so full of strategically-sculptured sound-absorbent foam that you can hear your own blood rushing through your veins right before you go stark raving mad from the isolation.
Also, for the first time in human history, a scoreboard decibel meter suddenly went sharply into negative numbers, which is our first indicator that the universe has stopped expanding and has now begun to contract in on itself.
Honestly, right now I am okay with this.
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The difference between the two consecutive home playoff losses now and the three straight in the Mora era in the late 80s and early 90s? My muscle memory of those old games has given me an eerily familiar hollow feeling: favored at home, early leads, things not quite clicking, missed chances to put the other team away early, other team doesn’t roll up into a ball and die like it’s supposed to dammit, blown leads, and walking out of the stadium wondering where it all went wrong again, and whether it would ever get any better. (Narrator: Under Mora, it would not.)
When you’ve finally won a whole bunch of playoff games, and in the Payton era we’re still 8-7 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl win, one certainly doesn’t feel quite as hopeless, while at the same time a little more baffled. But, still.
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Since the inception of the franchise, it seems like we’re always doing “firsts” of one kind or another, usually negative (first team to lose to the Bucs, first team to have a player caught trying to sell a playbook, you get the idea) in some fashion unless they involve Drew Brees or Michael Thomas.
You will thus I am sure be pleased, nay, thrilled to know that the Saints are the first team in NFL wild-card weekend history to have beaten the other three wild-card game winners during the regular season while losing at home in overtime without ever touching the ball to a team that was driving from left to right as viewed from the home bench.
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The field judge on Sunday, Allan Baynes, is the brother of Rusty Baynes, who was the line judge in the loss to the Rams in the NFCCG last year. And you gullible sheep tell me there are no conspiracies. *smdh here*
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Okay, enough trivia, navel-gazing and bullshit. What went wrong, and why was this team so obviously out of sorts as compared to a lesser Vikings team? (Spare us any contradiction and gainsaying – you know I am right and that this section of my work in this edition will be spot on, as usual.)
We had a conjunction of two odd factors that turned the playoff format on its head.
First, the wild-card team, the Vikings, actually had a bye. Since their 6-seed was locked in after week 16, in week 17 they rested their starters, and presumably spent the bulk of that week preparing for the Saints, having already played the Packers (twice), 49ers, and Seahawks, the other possible 3-seeds.
Conversely, the 3-seed, the Saints, spent the week focusing on and playing a road game that required their full attention (and boy did they deliver), but ultimately turned out to be meaningless, as the Packers had their fully-expected win over the Lions. (The Saints’ week 17 result was completely agnostic to the Seahawks-49ers game.) Payton gambled on the Packers somehow losing (or on making sure he wasn’t blamed we lost and then the Packers lost), and the dealer took all his chips.
Second, we just were’t ready (again, don’t argue with me)…..and there is no proper target for finger-pointing. And it’s not like Sean Payton has a history of his team not being ready for big games. But why?
Oddly, now I go back to the loss in last year’s NFCCG, which all the August pundits predicted would be a problem, until it obviously wasn’t. The team spent the first three months of the season successfully either ignoring last year’s end or using it for focus and determination. Now, in December, all the focus and December was “run the table, get a bye, run the table, get a bye.” Except, we ran the table, and didn’t get a bye, which had to feel like a punch in the stomach. Sometimes, when you use all your gas for a finishing kick, it’s tough to crank it back up on short notice.
I think the team went all-in emotionally on securing the bye, and got hosed by fate, and was just, for lack of a better phrase, flatter than they should have been for a playoff game. First all that work all season for nothing other than an expected playoff berth, and, great, now we have three games to grind through to get to the Super Bowl, combined with the inevitable muscle memory of last year….
(As an aside, please spare me the “these guys are all professionals they make so much money they should this and that and if I had that chance I’d never and yadda yadda.” They’re human beings, not machines, and you’re probably overweight. So shut up.)
You could tell from the first series when we didn’t score a TD off that turnover: the guys were reaching back in good faith for a fastball that, for reasons understandable in hindsight, just was not there all day.
The final exacerbating factor was that for once, the Vikings were set up perfectly, had their “bye” and had zero pressure and were playing for fun, with house money, much like the Saints when they won their first road playoff game at Philly in 2013. The Saints, on the other hand, looked like they were desperately looking for that accelerator pedal on every play, pressing, searching (tell me Brees didn’t look all 2008 on some plays, trying to make everything happen at once instead of cutting his losses) and ultimately it cost them the season.
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We’re going to end on a positive note, for those who want it. We still have a tremendous owner, front office, head coach, and deep pile of talent. While there is the eternal risk that a team suddenly loses its way, it’s usually from a coach who’s in denial and not self-scouting, or a GM who lets a team get too old all at once, or an organizational failure to recognize just how much luck was involved in recent success.
I will state flatly that the Saints don’t have any of those issues. Look, Payton or Loomis could retire tomorrow, but you live with that every day. Right now, this is as strong an organization as there is in the league, Patriots included.
Now, I DO believe that we can’t just run it back like we did in 2019, which was for this season the right thing to do – we get that bye, or somehow we get by the Vikings, and I am confident that this is a largely different story. But it’s not, and after three years of playoff….I won’t say failure, given the nature of the three losses, but I will say insufficient success….I think there have to be some noticable changes for a fresh start. I have zero idea what they need to be, but some change simply must happen. I leave speculation about specific steps until a later date.
In the meantime, after 53 years, hell or high water (and we’ve seen both), we’re not going anywhere.