COLUMN: Saints loss a crushing one

Ryan Arena

It still hurts.

I consider myself a pretty even keel Saints fan, particularly since their Super Bowl victory in 2009. I’ve wanted to see them do well, still wanted more accolades and championships, but that same level of desperation so many of us had to finally see them make it happen had waned after they’d finally reached the pinnacle.

But I WANTED that win Sunday. As did all of you.

I wrote last week that I couldn’t imagine a more crushing way for a team to snatch victory away than how Alabama defeated Georgia in overtime for the National Championship. I stand corrected. Because while this was *only* a divisional round playoff game, the significance pales in comparison to a championship matchup (not off the hook, Falcon fans). But I can’t think of a more painful Saints loss, including the one in 2011 to San Francisco.

Wounds from blowout losses heal quickly. Close ones linger. But having to take a notch out of the win column and into the loss column after effectively closing the door on the opposition? And on an ending that I can really only call … unique.

OK, perhaps there are a few other words I can and have used to describe it. I won’t use them here.

As the stages of fan grief go, by now we may all be in, or winding toward, the acceptance phase. But because I’m a masochist, I’ll revisit a couple of those stages here.

First we howl, then we heal.

So for the howling …

*MAKE THE TACKLE. Nobody feels worse than 21-year-old Marcus Williams does about that play. He made a mistake and it cost his team dearly. I’m not sure if he was holding up as to not commit a penalty or if he just misjudged his target to take out the legs of Stefon Diggs before he landed. I think some panic was involved, and he was, after all, a rookie. But it’s a play he has to make. That said …

*Right idea, wrong execution. With just 10 seconds left on the clock, I feel like some resources were misused. The one that keeps gnawing at me is the defensive back who stuck to Kyle Rudolph within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Another defensive back stuck at the 50 yard line rather than roll back. With even 5 to 10 more seconds on the clock, this makes sense, and perhaps in the heat of battle there wasn’t enough time to adjust the coverage on the fly.

But with just 10 ticks left, a dump off to Rudolph might net enough yards to get his team near midfield with about 4-5 seconds left. A field goal is off the table then and it’s just Hail Mary time. It felt like the Saints tried to have their cake and eat it too. In that situation, you’re usually resigned to a desperation heave into coverage. That’s not really what happened here, since only Williams could have made the play. Still, Williams should have made the play and things should have worked out …

*But what if Keenum had thrown a cleaner pass? Williams was there, but if he hits Diggs in stride in front of Williams, and the receiver doesn’t have to leap, it seems likely Diggs has at least a coinflip’s chance to get out of bounds to set up a field goal. In that situation, it just seems like Minnesota had too much space to play with at the part of the field they needed to get to.

*Not entirely a new problem either. We saw hints of it in late game situations over the past few weeks: the Saints’ late game soft zone has been tattered. Against Carolina, Cam Newton zoomed down the field and took almost no time to get into scoring range, though the Saints made the plays needed to survive. A week earlier against Tampa Bay, Jameis Winston did the same and finished the job. It hasn’t been a strength and I’m sure they’ll address it this offseason.

*We would have drawn a Nick Foles-led Eagles team in the NFC Championship. Shades of 2011, where the Saints would have hosted the New York Giants for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. The Saints would have been favored both times.

Now, the healing …

*After drafting offensive and defensive superstars in Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara, the Saints appear primed for success moving forward. A potentially tricky re-signing of Drew Brees will be needed, and we’ll sweat that out when the time comes, but this isn’t a team on its last legs.

*Williams made a rookie mistake, but he was another very strong rookie player and — in a twist of sad irony — was graded with just five missed tackles in the regular season. He stood up and answered questions after the devastating play. He has the mental maturity to overcome this and thrive.

*The Saints coaching staff made some fantastic halftime adjustments, the players executed and it turned what looked to be on the way to becoming an embarrassing blowout into a classic game.

*As shaky as Drew Brees started that game, man, what a second half he had and what a leader he is. I hope everyone appreciates what we’ve had for more than a decade in Brees. Many quarterbacks can post big numbers, but the Vikings had Brees’ number in the first half and he simply responded by saying “I’ll play better.” He was razor sharp after halftime, the offense was patient and found the openings presented by a very, very difficult defensive matchup.

*I always rationalized the 49ers loss in 2011 by looking back at the Minnesota win in 2009. The Saints beat an excellent Vikings team by forcing six turnovers. The 49ers defeated an excellent Saints team by forcing five.  Maybe I can even extend that currency one loss further. The Saints beat the Vikings when Brett Favre lost his mind and threw across his body. The Vikings beat the Saints on a collapsed defensive play. And we wouldn’t trade 2009.

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