The Saints’ Deadly Déjà Vu
New Orleans was routed last week at the hands of a physical Rams defense. Now they have to face a very similar, hard-hitting team in the Panthers. On the road. Oh yeah, and the division is on the line. Can Carolina complete its amazing NFC South surge?
So how long have we handed the NFC South to the Saints? Early October, at least for me. After Week 5, these were the division standings:
Since then, New Orleans is 5-4 and Carolina 9-1. That’s how you narrow a cavernous gap. Both teams stand 10-4 entering the big game of the NFL weekend, the game for the lead in the division. And since Carolina plays 4-10 Atlanta in Week 17, and New Orleans plays 4-10 Tampa Bay in Week 17, the Saints-Panthers game looks very much like the NFC South championship game in Charlotte Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
How did it come to this for New Orleans, a team that looks so dominant at home and so mistake-prone on the road? I watched the Saints’ loss at St. Louis last week, the embarrassing 27-16 debacle that wasn’t nearly that close, and the mistakes were alarming. Drew Brees threw interceptions on the first two series. The first was a badly underthrown ball to Jimmy Graham. The second was one of the biggest brain-cramp throws of Brees’ career, into triple-coverage just inside the end zone, an easy pick. Brees didn’t have a great chance in the game after that, in large part because Rams pass rusher Robert Quinn tormented left tackle Charles Brown all day. Brown was playing in slow-motion. Quinn was Usain Bolt. It was as ugly a matchup as you’ll see. For more insight, Greg A. Bedard wrote about how Quinn abused Brown in his Pressure Points column.
What else you noticed: The Saints got punched in the mouth a lot by a physical team. And they never had an answer for it, which bodes well for Carolina.
“You watch the Saints in the games they lost recently,” said linebacker Thomas Davis of the Panthers after practice Thursday. “You see teams with really physical defenses. We knew exactly how St. Louis was going to play them, because that’s the way they play—intense, chippy, extra stuff after the play. They did a great job playing a real physical game.”
Which is exactly the kind of game Carolina expects to play, except for the extra stuff.
“The comparisons are very valid,” said Davis, “because we play a physical style too. Look at the numbers. Except for Seattle, our numbers are better than the numbers on the teams that beat them. So we have what it takes to get the job done Sunday.”
This is an overly simplistic way to look at it, but it’s real: If Brees plays the kind of clunker he played last week, the Saints are done. They won’t win. New Orleans isn’t good enough to win by running game and defense alone. And I wouldn’t eliminate him playing a clunker. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson will put on pressure similar to Chris Long and Quinn last week. And the whole storyline of the road woes can’t be eliminated here. The Saints are 1-4 in their last five times out of the Superdome. “The first thing you notice about home and road for them is how precise they are about everything at home,” Davis said. “They do so much better executing their offense at home. Drew can make his checks, line his guys up right and put his guys exactly in the same position they should be in. But on the road, especially if the crowd is loud, he’s at a disadvantage. Maybe he doesn’t get his guys in the right position or run exactly the play he wants because he doesn’t have time to get out of one. But it’s noticeable.”
The reason this game is so important to New Orleans—which routed Carolina two weeks ago in New Orleans—is a loss would likely make them a wild-card team. And wild-card teams have to play three road games and one at a neutral site (New Jersey this season). So the task for the Saints would be borderline hopeless, with their recent road history, if they lose in Charlotte Sunday.
I asked Davis if what had happened the last two months surprised him. “Not at all,” he said. “This is the season we imagined it to be. It feels good to be in position to control what happens to us.”
Both of these teams are, which make this game so compelling.