Final Score: 49ers 36, Saints 32
Complete Box Score
Yards Gained: 472
Yards Allowed: 407
Yards/play allowed: 5.9
Turnover Differential: -4 [+1, -5]
First Down Differential: +9 [+26, -17]
Sack Differential: -1 [+4, -5]
Time of Possession Differential: +2:20
3rd Down Conversion: 36%, 5/14
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 27%, 4/15
2011 Aggregate Postseason Point Differential: +13
Average Postseason PPG: 38.5
Opponent's Average Postseason PPG: 32.0
* As hollow as it might seem in the immediate aftermath, let's be thankful for a record-setting season from the Saints. Brees. Sproles. Graham.
And the greatest offensive machine the NFL has ever seen.
To watch this team perform week after week was a privilege, and to see them defiantly fight back from a 17-point, first-quarter deficit was a microcosm of this team's heart, will, and skill set. That the season came crashing down in such a staggering and heartbreaking fashion shouldn't detract from the historically great season this offense just unveiled, the likes of which may never be seen again.
* In the same vein, this Saints' roster was likely the greatest and deepest we'll see for several years. Due to expiring contracts and a shortened offseason that allowed unique one-year free agent deals, the Saints assembled a collection of talent this season that they'll likely not be able to replicate in the near future.
This offseason, these Saints are all due for new contracts: Brees, Nicks, Colston, Porter, Meachem, Rogers, Franklin. And that's just off the top of my head. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the front office to keep all of these players on the roster heading into 2012. Let's be grateful for this incarnation of a roster that, while falling devastatingly short of its championship aspirations, represented the most-talented roster in Saints' history.
* As for the game itself, I'd like to specifically point out Roman Harper's contribution against the 49ers.
Limited all week in practice with a lingering ankle injury, Harper played a fantastic game, recording 8 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hits, and 1 pass defended.
Harper was all over the field, displaying his trademarked, attacking style and reminding the skeptics that he's indeed one of the best in-the-box strong safeties in the league today. Had it not been for Harper, the Saints would have very likely been in an unrecoverable hole early in the game.
* In the last note of "good' for the season, I'd like to thank the handful of you who followed this blogging venture during the season. I undertoook this project because I felt the Saints had an excellent shot at winning the Super Bowl, and I wanted to document the season in detail.
It didn't quite unfold in the manner I forecast, but it has been fun nonetheless. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
* The culmination of the Saints' first drive was a near kill-shot for the team's hopes.
The Saints took the opening kickoff and methodically and surgically moved down the field, signaling to the 49ers' defense that they were potentially in for a long day.
The Saints held the ball for 13 clock-churning plays that initiated a strategy of dispiriting the Niners' defense and forcing its offense to play from behind. But alas, that didn't come to fruition when Pierre Thomas was blasted at the two-yard line and fumbled. Not only did the 49ers take possession, but the Saints came up empty on the impressive drive and further lost Pierre Thomas--fresh off his best game as a pro--for the duration of the game.
What's worse is that when PT went out of the game, the Saints were down to two healthy RBs in Sproles and Ivory. Consequently, Coach Payton made the reasonable decision to remove Sproles from returning kickoffs in an effort to ensure his health for the remainder of the game.
As a result, a clearly rusty and overwhelmed Courtney Roby stepped in to return kicks and promptly fumbled a kickoff; even worse, he muffed the kickoff, scooped it up, tried to run, then fumbled again, giving the 49ers possession at the Saints' 13 yard-line. A disastrous sequence. The 49ers turned that fumble into 3 points.
The entire turn of events from Pierre Thomas' fumble/injury generated, at the very bare minimum, a six-point swing in the 49ers' favor. And this doesn't remotely account for the impact of PT's removal from the Saints' offense for the day, nor does it measure the impact of allowing the 49ers' offense to play with the lead for the majority of the game.
Finally, though the referees "correctly" ruled that Donte Whitner's vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on PT was legal, it illustrates a stark hypocrisy in the league's new-fangled player protection strategy.
In a day and age when hitting the QB is virtually impossible without penalty, and WRs are protected to the point of absurdity, it's still legal for a defensive player to recklessly and violently launch his helmet into that of a RB who's carrying the ball. Really? How is there any consistency in that policy? And how is that not more dangerous than any other action? How does any sane person who's watching that play think that's not a penalty in light of the overarching regulations now aimed at protecting players from sustaining head injuries?
* Saturday was yet another spectacularly painful defensive performance in consecutive road playoff games. In two straight postseason road losses, the Saints' defense has surrendered 41 and 36 points to offenses that would rightfully be considered mediocre, at best.
While the banal, bludgeoned-to-death, conventional wisdom has suggested that the Saints are a worse offense on the road, I think it's the defense that more logically fits into that category. Without playing in the boisterous, advantageous confines of the Superdome, the Saints' defense has--under Gregg Williams--fairly consistently proven incapable of holding up its end of the bargain over the past two seasons. And on Saturday, it failed to do so in the biggest of games.
And before anyone starts pointing out that the Saints played good defense for the majority of the game, let me declare that it's entirely moot when your offense twice gives you a lead to protect inside of 4 minutes, and both times you fail miserably and subsequently lose the game. 56 minutes count for jack shit if you can't close the deal.
How is that possible? And how did Gregg Williams not learn his lessons from the games in Atlanta and in Tennessee when the Saints' defense inexplicably allowed multiple late-game, big-play, long drives while the Saints tried to protect a lead?
Did he not learn anything from Harry Douglas and Nate Washington running free down the middle of the field for huge chunks of yardage when all the Saints needed to do was just keep the ball in front of them in order to protect a victory that was virtually guaranteed? Why is that so difficult to do?
How could he allow that to happen yet again? Twice in four minutes. Twice.
This was the coup-de-grace for Willams who just couldn't help himself, who just couldn't shelve his preening bravado, who wouldn't trade his alpha-male machismo for objective, sound strategy even for a few minutes. After all the lessons learned the past two seasons, Williams just wouldn't budge from his stubborn adherence to his painfully tragic, flawed methodology. What a fucking waste. A. Fucking. Waste.
After the week 14 game at Tennessee, about the defense I wrote:
"These same shortcomings coalesced into one ugly defensive performance last year against Seattle in the playoffs. You remember that, don't you? Well the problems linger.
Without a remedy for these fundamental ailments, the Saints face the prospect of falling victim to a similar, painful postseason fate this year."
If I could see it, why couldn't Gregg Williams? Did he even care?
* What's more disheartening about this Saints' defeat is the opportunity lost in the much-bandied about championship window, as insightfully pointed out here. These are the harsh realities of high expectation, and championship windows are only open for so long. Missing the opportunity to win the Super Bowl during the best season Brees will ever have, with the best Saints' roster the Saints will surely have under Payton, is dispiriting to the extreme.
It was all there for these Saints.
It was a chance to establish a dynasty, yet it slipped by. How many more viable opportunities will the Saints have again? Nothing is guaranteed in life, and though the future still holds promise, missing this present opportunity will surely be the professional regret-of-a-lifetime for many of these Saints' players.
* 5 turnovers. You'd think by now the Saints would be past this kind of implosion. And of course, you'd be wrong. Sadly enough, the implosion came under the worst of possible circumstances.
I did some research into teams who have turned the ball over 5+ times since the merger (1970). Since then, teams that have turned it over 5 times or more have a 12.6% chance of winning.
And in the playoffs, it's even harder because the level of competition is of greater caliber. Teams surrendering the ball 5+ times in the postseason win only 11.3% of the time.
Unfortunately, the Saints dug themselves a hole they were incapable of escaping from. Bucking the odds isn't quite as easy as we make it out to be sometimes.
* The last note of "ugly" on the season is remorsefully reserved for Malcolm Jenkins. Let me make clear that Jenkins has been one of my favorite players, and this article I wrote on him has, by far, received more hits than any other Saints' post I've penned.
But regardless, it seems reasonable at this point to question Jenkins' long-term viability as a free safety. Don't forget, Jenkins played 17 games this season and recorded not one interception. A travesty. A week after continually failing to even moderately slow down the monster that is Calvin Johnson, Jenkins played a downright awful game against the 49ers.
Let's look at 4 plays. 1) Vernon Davis' 49-yard first quarter TD: Jenkins clumsily comes flying forward, spazzes out, knocks down Roman Harper, and allows an easy TD for the 49ers. Jenkins' top priority as the Saints' free safety is to simply prevent big plays, which is why he lines up so far behind the line of scrimmage.
What's equally bad is that the 49ers came into the game ranked 29th in red zone offense. It was vital to the Saints' chances of victory to prevent the 49ers from scoring easy TDs, yet Jenkins allowed just this to happen right off the bat.
2) On Frank Gore's 42 yard run in the 4th quarter, Jenkins took a terrible angle and completely whiffed on Gore, allowing him to rumble downfield. This set up a FG and was the start of the 49ers' 16-point explosion in the 4th quarter.
3) With the Saints leading with a bit more than 3 minutes remaining, Jenkins allowed Vernon Davis to burn him down the left sideline for 37 crucial yards on 2nd and 10. This soon after led to an Alex Smith TD that would give the lead back to the 49ers. This was yet another big play that contributed to the defensive meltdown.
The fact that Jenkins is a converted CB who was covering a TE, and continually surrendered chunks of yardage the entire game, is just an abomination.
4) As if all of that wasn't enough, Jenkins did it once more. On the 49ers' game-winning drive, Davis again got past Jenkins with 40 seconds left for 47 back-breaking yards. Jenkins, yet again, took another terrible angle and mind-bogglingly played underneath Davis when his chief goal was to not surrender another big play.
While some of the onus here rightfully falls on Gregg Williams for leaving his secondary in a vulnerable position, it's still wholly unacceptable that Jenkins put himself into such a poor position at the most critical time. What a disappointment.
* "It's always difficult to absorb defeat. That was a hard fought, disappointing end to a great season. But I'm still proud of my team." - Will Smith