I woke up very discouraged today thinking about the New Orleans Saints’ performance as their nine-game winning streak came to an alarming halt Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.
With a chance to lock up their fourth straight NFC South title, their lack of urgency was startling, and they found themselves in an insurmountable 17-0 hole at halftime. In contrast, the Eagles played smart, sound football with rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts making his first NFL start. Philadelphia is barely in the playoff hunt, but the Eagles manhandled the Saints in the trenches, won the turnover battle and were simply the better team.
Saints No Longer Control Their Own Destiny
With this 24-21 upset, the Green Bay Packers are now in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. This was exactly the position the Saints were in last season after their head-to-head loss to San Francisco and clunker to 1-7 Atlanta. So this could be their devastating clunker. But the reigning Super Bowl champions are coming to town next, and the Chiefs are riding high at 12-1 this season.
So what do the Saints focus on as they try to rebound?
Taysom Hill’s ball security. Hill has fumbled 10 times this season, losing five of them. He’s made some great throws, like Sunday’s 37-yard touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders – but the bottom line is Hill often holds the ball too long, and it showed with five sacks in Philadelphia and the interception on a screen pass attempt. This must improve regardless of whether Hill or Brees starts under center, as Kansas City (like New Orleans) has 20 takeaways this season. The Saints’ best chance to win is to keep Patrick Mahomes on the sideline as much as humanly possible.
Run defense. If Jalen Hurts was supposed to be a “warmup” for Mahomes and his plethora of weapons, the Saints failed miserably. Hurts racked up 167 passing yards and a touchdown, along with 100 rushing yards. Miles Sanders amassed 115 yards and two scores, including an 82-yard rush in the first half. The defense looked confused and off balance before halftime, allowing the Eagles to score a TD on 4th down, and their only failed red-zone attempt came on a missed field goal that limited the carnage to 17-0. The defense stiffened in the second half, even forcing a Hurts fumble late, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The Chiefs actually committed four turnovers Sunday at Miami, so the Saints defense must return to its opportunistic ways if they want to pull an upset of their own.
Kicking woes. Three missed field goals in two games for Wil Lutz is almost unheard of. And we might not be complaining about the Saints’ wasting time huddling on offense late in the fourth quarter if they only trailed by one possession instead of two. The game hadn’t gotten away from the Saints yet when Lutz missed his 45-yard kick Sunday – the defense had just stymied the Eagles on downs after an 8-minute drive. We’ll see how Sean Payton and the Saints address this in practice this week because Lutz had been so dominant early in the season, making his current slump especially discouraging.
Where Things Stand with 3 Games to Go
The Saints are in the playoffs, that’s a given. But two of their next three games are against teams in the playoff hunt – vs. Kansas City (Dec. 20, 3:25 p.m. CT), vs. Minnesota (Dec. 25, 3:30 p.m. CT) – before the season finale Jan. 3 at Carolina (Jan. 3, noon CT). All they need is one more win (or one more Tampa Bay loss) to clinch the NFC South and assure at least one home playoff game.
But the No. 1 seed is much harder now – the Saints must win out and hope for a Packers loss along the way. Green Bay’s schedule is more favorable: Dec. 19 vs. Carolina; Dec. 27 vs. Tennessee; Jan. 3 at Chicago. That’s a 19-20 (.487) combined opponent record vs. the Saints’ challenge of 22-17 (.564). Tennessee is in a dogfight with the Colts atop the AFC South, so the Titans at Packers on Sunday Night Football will be a game Saints fans could be keenly interested in.
However, the Saints can’t be happy needing help to get back to the top seed. And they have no one to blame but themselves.