By Claude Coupee
Yeah, I said it.
This is painful, but I can’t come up with any other conclusion and feel like I’m being honest with myself.
Big Game: n. [big ɡām] any Saints game that is
- Any game against a good team that, no matter where in the season, you just know will be important for playoff seeding.
- A road playoff game.
- A home playoff game against a team with at least 10 wins.
Games against mediocre opponents? You should win those anyway.
Home playoff games against teams with less than 10 wins? If you can’t win those, none of your games that year were big anyway.
Other NFC South games? If they don’t hit one of those other categories, honestly, nah.
(Of course, EVERY Falcons game is in its own singular category: come home with your shield, or on it.)
In the middle of the 2015 Saints season, then-defensive assistant coach Dennis Allen took over as defensive coordinator for the failed Rob Ryan, yet another in the long line of defensive coordinators that Sean Payton has gone through since 2006 like J-Lo goes through boyfriends.
For the balance of 2015 and then 2016, as the Saints struggled to escape their Sisyphus-like stretch of trapped-in-amber 7-9 seasons, the defense ranked 32nd and 29th (per the overall ranking system at pro-football-reference.com), but by 2017 Allen had fully put this stamp on the steadily improving unit by finishing 19th, 18th, 14th and last year 8th in the NFL.
On the other hand, in the Allen Era we’ve lost three playoff games (two at home) on the last play of the game, and a few other Big Games during that time as well.
So, are these guys just chokers?
Depends how you define “choke.” I think there are two kinds: either the overall moment is just too big for you emotionally and you get overwhelmed (think Bobby Hebert in the playoffs, which he has essentially admitted, to his incredible credit), or you’re ready for the game and then late, when victory is almost in your grasp, you suddenly and without warning *gurglegurglegurgle* and it all…just…slips…away… (Falcons in the Super Bowl, QED).
I am pretty sure that The Allen Defense is pretty squarely in the second category.
My theory is that this all started with the First Great Choke with FS Marcus Williams whiffing on the game-losing tackle on the last play of the infamous 24-29 playoff loss at Minnesota on the last play of the 2017 season. Since then, as always, let’s look at the numbers.
All Big Games 2018-2020
Home – 3-6
Road – 3-1
That’s 6-7 overall.
I guess 6-7 might be OK, but that home/road split is pretty disturbing, especially when we are supposed to have That Great Dome Field Advantage. Not to mention that we allowed 26 points per game and only twice in 13 games did we give up fewer than 23 points. Pretty tough to get home field and a Super Bowl, even if you are Drew Brees, if it’s pretty much given that you’ll need to average four TDs a game to have a shot.
One-Score Big Games (i.e decided by seven points or less) 2018-2020
Home – 1-5
Road – 2-1
But how much of this is on the defense?
You tell me.
@ Baltimore, W 24-23. Up 24-17, the defense gives up a last minute TD drive and allows Baltimore….and then maybe the greatest kicker of all time, Justin Tucker, misses the tying PAT with 20 seconds to go. An astonishing bailout.
@ Dallas. L 10-13. Their finest hour, keeping us in the game with seven(!) sacks and two FF.
The NFCCG. Up 13-0 in the second quarter. Then the Rams scored on five of their last seven drives, including to a tying FG after the Saints took the lead with about 1:50 to go. All we needed was ONE PLAY. Pick off a tipped ball. Sack/fumble. Big sack at the right time. Anything. Nothing. Rams get the ball in OT in decent field position, ballgame. Possibly the Saints worst loss in a long history full of them.
Houston, W 30-28. The Saints take a 27-21 lead with 54 seconds to go, and the defense gives up a TD in TWO PLAYS to fall behind 27-28, and Brees and PK Wil Lutz combine for a miracle finish with a 57-yard FG on the last play of the game. Shall we say astonishing bailout #2.
@ Seattle, W 33-27. In a game that included our ONLY DEFENSIVE TOUCHDOWN IN 23 BIG GAMES SINCE 2017 (why am I shouting you ask?), the Saints led 27-7 with twelve minutes to go and hung on. While it wasn’t really close at the end, did they have to give up three fourth quarter TDs? Well, brace yourselves, kiddos, and pour a healthy double Jack Daniels because you’re gonna need it.
San Francisco, L 46-48. In the game that obviously would decide home field in the NFC, at home, the Saints defense gives up 516 yards and 48 points, while racking up all of three sacks and one pick. Two critical massive chokes:
First, the Saints take a 20-7 lead on the first play of the second quarter, and the Dome is going absolutely insane. Loud as it’s ever been. The very next play after the kickoff, 49ers QB Jimmy Garropolo, under pressure, heaves a moon ball deep down the middle. FS Marcus Williams (him again) draws a bead on the ball and I am thinking easy INT, go down and score again up 27-7 and game over. Except Williams stumbles and the 49ers WR catches the ball and goes 75 yards for a TD.
We didn’t know it yet, but the Brees Era ended on that play. Change my mind.
In what was almost anticlimactic, the Saints scored waaay too early (0:53 left in the game) to take a 46-45 lead, the defense failed to get a fourth down stop, and we lose on the last play of the game. Again.
Minnesota, L 26-20. Vikings take the overtime kickoff and march down and score. Third straight playoff loss on the last play of the game, second at home. Enough said.
Green Bay, L 30-37. In a home loss that eventually caused the loss of the #1 seed, the defense gave up 373 yards and 37 points, 24 in the second half, with one whole sack and forcing zero turnovers.
Kansas City, L 29-32. The defense gives up 411 yards and 32 points (18 in the second half after the Saints took a 15-14 lead) and get four sacks but….that’s just not enough.
Let me make it easy for you. In the nine One-Score Big Games in the last three seasons:
- We’re 3-6 with two bailout wins in the last minute of the game.
- We lost the last five at home.
- We have two, TWO interceptions, and only eight turnovers total.
- In all but one game (Dallas) we have either led or been tied in the second half.
- We have zero, ZERO defensive TDs. In fact, there’s only been ONE defensive TD in a Big Game since the beginning of 2017, Vonn Bell ran a fumble back for a TD in the early blowout at Seattle in 2019 that ended up being a One-Score Big Game only because we gave up three TDs in the fourth quarter.
- Since that Seattle win, we are 2-5 in Big Games, with the two wins over, yes, the Bucs last season….leading to choking a third-quarter lead in yet another home playoff loss against the same Bucs team we already thumped pretty solidly twice.
Maybe the pressure to win one more Lombardi for an aging Drew Brees was more than anybody could take.
We’ll never know.
Look, tomorrow’s another Big Game, again at home.
We are underdogs, these are the Super Bowl champs with Tom Brady, maybe we can just be loose like we were in the season opener against Green Bay.
Maybe the pressure’s off now.
Also helps to have Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata on the field.
Time to get the beer ready and see what happens.