14 October 2013

Let It Bleed

The Saints' loss to the Patriots on Sunday was a reminder of the harsh reality of high expectations.

All losses aren't created equal, and Sunday's game proved that even the slightest blemish on an otherwise exceptional season can be downright brutal.

Ultimately, it wasn't so much what happened as much as it was how it happened.

courtesy of the LA Times
In a lot of ways, Sunday's game was reminiscent of the Saints' agonizing loss to San Francisco in the 2011 playoffs: both were road games in which the Saints dug themselves an early hole, then climbed out despite most everything going wrong, then miraculously reclaimed the lead at the end, only to then lose in the most soul-crushing of fashions.

On Sunday, the Saints endured a mind-bogglingly horrible spate of officiating; an off day from Drew Brees; injuries to Jimmy Graham and Cam Jordan; and an uncharacteristic ineffectiveness at the end (more on this later) against a team that's lost just three regular season home games since 2009.

And yet still, the Saints nearly emerged 6-0.

It took an extreme sequence of events for the Saints to lose against one of the NFL's all-time great coaches, coming off of a loss, in a place where he rarely loses.

Where fitful outrage might innately, and rightfully, take hold, it's the larger context that should reign supreme.

In his last sixteen games as the Saints' coach, Sean Payton is 14-2 with the two losses being the aforementioned games. Because the benchmark is now so lofty, and because it's taken damn-near perfect storms of mishap brushed by aberrant endgame lunacy (on the road) for the Saints to even lose recently, it's safe to say that the Saints will bounce back just fine following this loss.

In the meantime, Sunday's sting rates to linger for a while with the bye week on tap.

Additionally, the residual possibility of losing Jimmy Graham for an extended period potentially inflates the magnitude of Sunday's events.

But mostly, a road loss to an AFC team isn't likely to make much of a difference when it's all said and done this year.

As a rule, it's never a good idea to blame the officiating for a loss, and I'm not going to do so here. The Saints had multiple chances to close it out and failed, but still ...

It's not so easy to immediately forget a dodgy, endzone pass interference call on 3rd down that then produced a Patriots' touchdown; or an enraging false start penalty on what should have been a neutral zone infraction, that almost surely cost the Saints points at the end of the first half; or a shifty unnecessary roughness call on Malcolm Jenkins on a drive that later produced a Pats' field goal; or the cynical non-call of the Brees' timeout that either should have been a timeout or a delay of game penalty, yet was bizarrely allowed to unfold as a play in which Jimmy Graham then injured himself and Brees threw an interception, ultimately culminating in another Patriots' field goal; or the maddening unpenalized hog-tie of Junior Galette on Tom Brady's game-winning touchdown pass.

Getting boned isn't anything new to the Saints, and I'm sure Payton and company are prepared to brush it off like the minor disturbance it is.

Those were the infuriating, altering aspects of the loss but nevertheless, the Saints should have finished off the Patriots when they had the chance(s).

On the Saints' final two possessions, both inside of three minutes, the Saints' offense failed to produce a first down that would have iced the game. Instead, they went three-out-field goal and then three-out-punt, the latter sequence setting the table for a brutal loss.

To me, the endgame wasn't an issue of poor playcalling by Sean Payton.

Throughout the second half the Saints had run the ball well, racking up 122 yards on 20 carries. When it counted most, though, the Saints failed to execute in the running game and it cost them.

Payton again opted for the safer route, a trait he's consistently shown in 2013, but in this instance it wasn't a route unfounded. At that point, there wasn't reason to think the Saints couldn't grind out one more first down on ground.

If there was anything in those last two drives that proved strange, it was the awkward 3rd-down bootleg call for Brees. That, of course, diverged from the years-long established personality of the aggressive Payton. But moreso than that, the playcall seemed out of character for a team that's never relied on smoke-and-mirrors to finish off an opponent.

But it was only one of six penultimate playcalls, and had Chandler Jones bit on the play-fake, Brees would likely have run for a first down, and we'd all be hailing Sean Payton for his devious genius.

Instead, Jones played it smart and wasn't fooled. Thems the breaks.

On a positive note, the Saints' youth movement continues to emerge as viable.

Nick Toon and Kenny Stills have increasingly looked more comfortable and impactful through six weeks. If there's a transition underway among the Saints' receiving corps, it's in good hands. Literally.

On the defensive side of the ball, Rafael Bush played a stellar game on Sunday. Bush has proved himself both smart and an excellent tackler, and the more he's played, the better he's looked. Sunday continued a trend of impressive outings for Bush while filling in for an injured Roman Harper. Here's to hoping Bush remains a key component of the Saints' secondary when Harper returns from injury.

Most notably, Khiry Robinson appears to have officially replaced Mark Ingram in the Saints' backfield.

Robinson has made the most of his limited touches this year, averaging 5.3 yards on his season's 26 carries. In Sunday's second half Robinson again played his role well, igniting a rushing attack that helped the Saints wrest control of the game.

Absent injury, I'm not sure if Mark Ingram will ever log another carry in New Orleans. With the bye week ahead, an Ingram trade might actually come to fruition.

Get ready for the speculation to reach a fevered pitch.

Heading into the bye week at 5-1, the Saints are in fine position to make a run at the #1 seed in the NFC.

In the broader context, that's all that really matters.

All things considered--Sean Payton reacclimating himself, Rob Ryan installing a new defense, the team battling a consistent stream of injuries--2013 has unfolded exceptionally well thus far.

Let not the ephemera of Sunday define the whole.

With a key four-game stretch looming next month--vs. Dallas, vs. San Francisco, at Atlanta, at Seattle--the Saints control their fate in the race for the NFC's top seed.

Sunday's loss in New England, assuming Jimmy Graham eventually returns healthy, won't impact the Saints' 2013 hopes in any lasting way.

In fact, the lessons learned from Sunday's painful loss may prove beneficial as the Saints march on towards the postseason.

1 comment:

  1. Great post-game analysis; enjoyed it more than what I read by the paid media. But I wouldn't be so sure to discount Payton's prideful investment in Ingram just yet. MI's got a few more touches in third-down situations, for good or ill. Predictably ill.