We can stop simulating playoff scenarios now – the New Orleans Saints’ “Super Wild Card Weekend” matchup is official. The Chicago Bears are coming to town, a foe they faced earlier this season and escaped with a 26-23 overtime win at Soldier Field.
It’s the first-ever NFC matchup featuring No. 2 vs. No. 7 seeds in this expanded playoff format, and many Saints fans might be having thoughts like, “How is this fair? If this was any other year, we’d be sitting pretty with a first-round bye (formerly granted to the top two teams in each conference).”
But these are the rules. Hey, look on the bright side – Alvin Kamara has a better chance of returning from COVID-19 since the game is Sunday at 3:40 p.m., if he meets all league protocols. However, he cannot practice or be with the team before Sunday. But it’s straight up impressive how Sean Payton and the Saints plug and play no matter who’s been unavailable at various points this season, from offensive stalwarts to defensive playmakers:
We’ll keep a close eye on if Kamara can return for Sunday and build on his career-high 1,688 scrimmage yards, as well as when Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington and Trey Burton return – they are expected back this week. Drew Brees was sacked twice Sunday, but he put together some great throws, including a highlight-reel catch by undrafted free agent pickup Marquez Callaway, and most importantly, zero interceptions.
You get an interception, you get an interception…..: The Saints’ turnover margin improved to +9 with five interceptions by five different players (Malcolm Jenkins, Grant Haley, Marshon Lattimore, P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley) at Carolina, and they didn’t turn the ball over. That’s a recipe for winning football in the postseason. They also racked up five sacks.
Offense clicking at the right time: The Saints’ offense was balanced in their final regular season game – 30 runs for 156 yards & 32 passes for 191 yards – huge especially if they have to travel in the playoffs. But let’s not look too far ahead. Against the Bears, the Saints will definitely get top receiver Michael Thomas back, and possibly even Deonte Harris. And just look the season they’ve been able to put together without their biggest offensive weapons – Brees, Kamara and Thomas have only played 10 quarters together all year – they cracked the top 5 in scoring offense for the fifth straight year.
On Sunday, WR Emmanuel Sanders praised Payton’s masterful game planning in the face of adversity.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” Sanders said. I’ve enjoyed being around his energy and his intellect. To me, the coach of the year.”
So can the New Orleans Saints fend off the Bears a second time this season? The Bears put themselves in playoff position with three straight wins scoring 33 points or more before landing with a thud Sunday against Green Bay, 35-16. However, they still backed into the playoffs with Arizona’s loss to the L.A. Rams – completely opposite of the Saints, who are gaining momentum.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the Bears’ season: 5-1 start, lose six straight, win three of four, with two quarterback changes sandwiched in (they’re back to Mitchell Trubisky after Nick Foles was injured in Week 10). Their three most recent wins came against struggling teams – Houston, Minnesota and Jacksonville – and the Bears are just the third team since the 1970 merger to reach the playoffs after losing six in a row. Congratulations, I guess?
David Montgomery is their workhorse at running back (1,070 yards, 4.3 avg, 8 TDs), and Chicago has receiving weapons in Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney and TE Jimmy Graham, so the Saints’ defense needs to be ready to get pressure, create turnovers and force field goals in the red zone.
Back in November at Chicago, the Saints offense was just 1-of-4 in the red zone and 2-of-13 on 3rd-down conversions against the Bears defense, arguably the strength of their team. It’s worth nothing though that the scoring defenses are virtually tied, yet favor the Saints (21 ppg to 23 ppg). Wil Lutz also missed a 27-yard field goal off the right upright (though he did convert the game-winner in overtime). Bears kicker Cairo Santos, meanwhile, was a perfect 3-for-3 in field goals. Playoff games so often come down to special teams, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for a clean performance in the kicking game.
As Saints fans, we’ve learned the hard way NOTHING is guaranteed in the postseason. No game is automatic. Everyone is 0-0. Time to chase another Lombardi Trophy!