Falcons Destroy Saints Playoff Hopes: The Nightmare Is Real
For Saints fans, this is rock bottom: being eliminated from playoff contention by the Falcons at home in the Dome. To make it worse, the loss was fitting.
It had all the awful, unexpected aspects that came to characterize this disappointing Saints season. Warning, this might hurt.
With a chance to go win the game at the end in heroic fashion, Drew Brees threw an interception to kill the drive before it got started. The defense missed tackles and allowed a hobbled Julio Jones to pick up multiple critical first downs. Jimmy Graham, the league's highest paid TE, got stripped on a play that could have been ruled a touchdown and should have been whistled dead for forward progress.
All these pieces make Saints fans' blood boil, but don't lose your head. There's nothing to be mad at anymore. The Saints' season will end with the regular season, which still seems unbelievable to say. The 30-14 loss even affected Head Coach Sean Payton in unexpected ways.
"There is a sting, a finality to it," Payton said postgame to gathered reporters.
The Falcons didn't just illustrate the Saints' deficiencies on the X's and O's, but they punctuated an evident lack of fight and the propensity for calamity that plagued New Orleans.
On the final play of the game, Osi Umenyiora picked up another Drew Brees fumble, started to run toward the endzone, stopped to think it over, then decided to taunt the team and fans on his way to a garbage time touchdown. In a rivalry game to finish your playoff hopes, that's grounds for justification by means of the fist. No retaliation came though, and honestly, there was no need. The wound was already wide open to rub the salt in.
The hinging point of the game came on a call that Jimmy Graham, Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the entirety of Who Dat Nation all thought was clearly a touchdown. It would have made it a 20-14 game with plenty of time left, but things went terribly wrong. There's several factors that could have shook out differently on that play, so let's break them down individually.
Graham clearly should have been whistled down for forward progress, but the call was never made on the field, which is not eligible for review. To make matters worse, only a portion of the ball has to touch the goal line. With many blown up pictures, Graham's elbow and the ball were on the line, which is good enough. The last portion is on Graham though. He should have held onto the ball, all the way through the whistle that never came.
Can a single play represent the woes of a season? Probably not, but the levels of frustration felt by the coaching staff, players and fans were pretty symbolic.
The numbers speak for themselves. A poor defensive unit allowed the Falcons to pick up over 400 total yards, while forcing zero turnovers. The offense didn't help either, turning the ball over four times, often in critical places. The Graham fumble made Saints fans angry, but Brees' interception to ice the game made their stomachs drop to a familiar, disgusted region developed during a long season filled with inexplicable mistakes.
Payton put it best in his postgame presser, "That's the hard part about it, the way it ends."
After starting the game with a brilliant kick return from Jalen Saunders, the shadows of the same nightmare started creeping in all throughout the game. Brees was under constant siege, while his counterpart on the other side was allowed all the time in the world in the pocket to deliberate and find wide open receivers.
Ultimately though, there's only one option: realize the nightmare is over, wake up and go about addressing issues in the light of day. Whatever the cause, no excuses can be made for a 6-9 record when your team was picked as a preseason Super Bowl candidate.
One player who can speak well to the frustration is OL Zach Strief, who embodies the struggle of the team pretty well. He struggled with injuries, and as a result the team was unable to protect Brees in critical spots. The losing record is enough to make your head spin. The fact that it makes sense was almost too much for Strief to comprehend.
"It's not how you expect the season to go, it's just not." Strief said, "It's not a sudden, shocking deal. It's been a frustrating season all year."
Strief's emotions started to creep into his postgame interview with WWL's Christian Garic, but what else can you expect from a player suddenly realizing their dream season is ending in utter disappointment?
"At the end of the day, you play for each other, you play for your coaches, you play for your fans, you play for your management, and when you perform like we have this year..you let all those people down." Strief said. "It's our fault...you can't blame anybody, but it's extremely disappointing and it hurts."
It's hard to describe the pain of this season better than Strief put it himself, so we will finish with an image to illustrate the shocking result in the Superdome.
Of all the things to emerge from a game against the Atlanta Falcons, with the division and a playoff berth on the line, this was the last thing the Saints and their fans wanted to see.