The Road To The Super Bowl Does -And Will- Go Through New Orleans

Despite the score being a measly (At least, compared to some of the other scores we’ve seen this season) 31-28, Sunday’s late afternoon shootout between the Steelers and the Saints characterized the theme of this season perfectly: Score or you’ll get left behind or get rallied back on.

The 2nd half was where everything really picked up.  Despite a 17-14 halftime score, everything had developed quite subtly.  The defenses were getting stops.  Antonio Brown didn’t get going until late in the 2nd quarter.  The first half took what felt like an insane amount of time to complete.  The Steelers were down two possessions soon after halftime.

But it wasn’t like they started slow.  The Pittsburgh slow starts had been their 2nd biggest issue all season (2nd to the defense being terrible), and they actually got off to a good one this time.  They got 14 points thanks to Chris Boswell making two kicks and the Saints blowing a goal-line coverage on Jaylen Samuels.

Their biggest issue hurt them before halftime though.  Alvin Kamara didn’t gash Pittsburgh on the ground (even though he ran for two touchdowns; those came down to Kamara hitting holes hard and well on the goal-line), but his speed was uncontested when Drew Brees threw to him.  The Saints lined up Kamara to the left of Brees in shotgun and let him go to work.  Kamara gashed Pittsburgh twice with wheel routes from the backfield.

He’s just too fast.  He shoots out of the backfield, and because of this Sean Davis can’t get to him.

A similar wheel route by Kamara set up the Saints for the field goal which gave them the 17-14 lead at the half.

That lead was close to detrimental for the Steelers.  New Orleans got the ball out of halftime and came out blazing.  An 11 play, 5:45 minute drive that featured the Kamara wheel route above and a Kamara punch-in at the end put New Orleans up two possessions.  The Steelers didn’t even have a chance to respond.  And it’s not like you can blame the defense.  What was that group supposed to do?  What were we expecting them to do against this offense?

Pittsburgh’s offense had to bail them out, and somehow, they did.  The Steelers offense has been incredibly frustrating this season.  Slow starts and terrible decisions from Ben Rothlisberger have plagued them, especially so during their three game losing streak earlier this year.  But they came out of halftime on fire, and matched the Saints explosiveness.

The Steelers first drive of the 3rd quarter was an all-out assault.  It was like the Steelers went “Hey, we have Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on our roster.  We should throw to them!” and they did.  The first drive showed the peak of each of those guys’ powers.  It  featured four pass plays of 10+ yards to Brown and Smith-Schuster, and was capped by a TD pass to guess who.

This play design was excellent.  Pittsburgh went with a trips left formation with Xavier Grimble out wide, Smith-Schuster in the middle and Brown in the slot.  JuJu ran a smash route to the inside while Grimble ran one outside to create space.  JuJu’s smash route acted as a non-contact pick/distractor for Brown’s defender, which left Brown wide open in the back of the end zone.

But still, even after that, it still felt like the Steelers were going to be stuck playing catch-up with one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.  After the show the Saints had put on before and after halftime, Pittsburgh looked cooked defensively.

But they held strong.  The Steelers got two sacks on Brees,  forced a three and out and had the same firepower they possessed on the drive before.  It was the same type of drive.  Huge plays to Brown and Smith-Schuster made the whole thing, and once again it was Brown in the end zone that concluded it.

This play was a little more simple than the first one.  Brown blew Marshon Lattimore off the line and got open that way instead.

The next three possessions were full of mistakes.  The Saints once again did nothing, then Jaylen Samuels fumbled and gave New Orleans the stop they couldn’t get themselves.  That then led to a blocked field goal, which the Steelers inexplicably didn’t capitalize on thanks to trying to fake a punt UP FOUR POINTS WITH FOUR MINUTES LEFT.

It’s amazing that the Steelers coaches keep coming up with things I could criticize them for.  I was actually decently okay with the call to go for it.  It’s not like they were pinned deep in their own territory; Pittsburgh was on their own 42.  The Saints couldn’t kick a field goal had a three-and-out occurred, and punting could easily result in a touchback, which would have led to a small net yardage gain.  But there was no need to fake the punt.  Those are always fluke plays when they work, and as I went through above, the Saints had serious issues containing the Steelers earlier in the half.  Why didn’t Pittsburgh try and beat them with their skill guys instead of using up-back Roosevelt Nix??

Instead of converting the 4th down, running out the clock and possibly adding more points, the Steelers turned it back over to Brees and the Saints offense, which was due after being stopped on two consecutive drives.  Even the best defenses aren’t shutting down New Orleans three possessions in a row, let alone Pittsburgh’s.  The Steelers took those odds, and yeah, it turned out to be a mistake.

It was a classic Drew Brees drive.  It was methodical.  They got yards and did their best to kill clock despite Pittsburgh calling two timeouts.  Brees looked calm.  Guys were making plays.  After the deep crossing route that Ted Ginn ran and caught a ball on, it felt like the Saints had it in hand.  They weren’t losing that game.

And they didn’t.  Brees led them down the field and Michael Thomas made two ridiculous catches to seal it.  Sure, the fumble by Smith-Schuster saved them at the end, but rather than the Saints getting lucky, how about rewarding the defense and Sheldon Rankins for saving the game for them?  New Orleans defense was torched drive after drive by the Steelers in the 2nd half, and if not for Rankins’ strip, they probably would have been again.

Those are the plays that Super Bowl teams make though.  Those wins are special ones, and it just doesn’t feel like anyone is stopping them now.  Equipped with the No.1 seed and home field advantage, the Saints are in prime position for a run.  They have the best offense in the NFC (Without home-field, you could make a case they’re 2nd.  Then again, the Rams have also sputtered lately) and the 2nd best defense (The Bears are absolutely terrifying.  New Orleans has improved their coverage since early in the season while the Rams leave dudes open all the time.  The Saints have also been much better against the run, having the 3rd ranked rush defense by DVOA in the league).  They showed they can outscore the Rams in Week 9, when New Orleans got one extra possession (Thanks to the defense once again) and won 45-35 in a shootout.  They took care of a team they should have beaten in Minnesota the week before, in a game where the Vikings showed their two massive weaknesses (Cousins being terrible and overall offensive incompetency AKA Steelers Syndrome).  They squashed Philadelphia 40-7 in an epic Drew Brees performance, where the emergence of Keith Kirkwood and Trequan Smith occurred.  And then survived a Pittsburgh team that, when fully firing, is among the NFL’s best.

We just went through three teams that will be in the playoffs and one that could be. New Orleans took care of all of them already this season.  All they’d have to do is do it again.

Sure, there’s some drawbacks.  But who doesn’t have them this season?  New Orleans laid an egg against Dallas in Week 13, and barely held on in Carolina two weeks ago.  Both of those games were on the road and one was outside.  Those two factors are irrelevant come January.

New Orleans is just more complete than anyone else.  The defense is better than the Rams, the offense is better than the Bears and Seattle’s.  We don’t really know what we’ll get from Dallas on a weekly basis, and Minnesota and Philadelphia each need help to get in.

The Bears and Seahawks present the biggest challenge.  Both teams have shown the ability to shut down the league’s top offenses (Seattle vs. KC last night, Chicago vs LA in Week 14).  But to do that against the Saints means playing in their conditions; Chicago beat LA at home (Thanks, Chicago Winter!) and Seattle beat KC with the backing of the 12th man.

In a season where we went from “Look at the all the good teams!” to questioning and picking everyone apart, the Saints are the team that has held strong through both evaluations.  Now, they have the path to make this evaluation hold strong as well.

Quick hits:

  • I was waiting and waiting for Washington to be eliminated from the playoffs and it finally happened Saturday night.
  • The bummer is that Josh Johnson immensely out-played Blaine Gabbert and made the first mistake between the two, which ended up costing him the game.
  • The Titans are an incredibly stupid and infuriating team.  They’re good every other week.  Can Houston and Indy please win next week so we don’t have to deal with them in the playoffs?
  • Derrick Henry though… what a way to close out this season.
  • And shoutout to the other running back in that game: Adrian Peterson.  An unreal year for him.
  • He kinda showed it early last season with the Cardinals.  There were flashes of stuff left in the tank.
  • It’s really a bummer that one of Indianapolis and Baltimore is going to get left out of the playoffs.  Those are two really fun teams.
  • What the Ravens did to the Chargers Saturday was extremely impressive.  Baltimore gashed them with Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards on the ground.  Jackson also made the best throw I’ve seen him make all season that night as well.
  • The Ravens defense was huge too.  The secondary didn’t let anyone get open and that lead to pressure on Phillip Rivers.
  • Which, in the 2nd half, killed two drives that, with a touchdown, would have put the Chargers ahead.
  • Shoutout to Larry Fitzgerald for beautifully executing the Philly Special, resulting in Arizona’s only touchdown of the day yesterday.
  • Yesterday could have easily been Fitz’s last home game.  Awesome way to go out if so.
  • I’m debating where I stand on Steve Wilks.  The offense needs a complete overhaul scheme and personnel wise and he’s not the guy to do it.  At the same time, the offense isn’t his responsibility.
  • Baker Mayfield has been the only rookie quarterback that hasn’t struggled immensely this year.  I’m all-in on Rosen still.  Get him some help!
  • Speaking of Baker and the Browns…  Next year is their year.
  • We were a little early on them.  Can you imagine if Hue Jackson got fired earlier?  Or if he didn’t coach at all?  Would the Browns be winning the division?
  • Baker is awesome.  He’s eliminated every concern I had for him coming out of Oklahoma.  He literally hasn’t changed a thing, on the field or off it, and it’s working.
  • Dallas is locked into the 4th seed and that feels just about right.
  • We’ve had two good weeks of Vikings offense and it is coming at the perfect time.
  • I mentioned it above, but what a win for the Colts yesterday.  I feel like they’re more equipped to make a run than Baltimore is, but they also hang around in every single game, and sometimes Luck is left having to do too much at the end.
  • Not yesterday though.  The Giants final two drives were bad (Punt, pick) and it cost them the game.  When we talk about teams like New Orleans-teams that capitalize when they need to-Indy is one of them.  They did that Sunday.
  • I didn’t watch any of Jaguars-Dolphins and I hope you didn’t either.
  • We’re at the point where the Patriots are going to have to battle the fact that Tom Brady isn’t Tom Brady anymore and yesterday they won the battle.
  • There have been other times they haven’t won it, and that’s why they’ve lost to bad teams.
  • Josh Allen has been good every other game.  Like Rosen, he’s a rookie and that’s okay.
  • Like New England, the Packers are at the point where Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to be good every other game either and they have to find ways to overcome that.
  • Yesterday though, he was good and it didn’t matter.
  • The game was close because Sam Darnold, like Baker Mayfield, is getting it done without sufficient weapons, which is really, really impressive.
  • It took him a lot longer than Baker; I found this due to the fact that Baker is just better and that, even though both situations aren’t great, Baker did have more guys around him than Darnold does.
  • Seriously though.  Once both these guys get weapons, watch out.
  • Isn’t it kinda odd that the Eagles have been better since Nick Foles took over? (Ducks under a bridge as fast as possible)
  • That’s not a hot take and is just an observation.
  • But like, isn’t it worth talking about? (Ducks again)
  • Yikes.  This is a dicey situation.  I think the playoffs are the best test case for this.  What happens if the Eagles sneak in, Wentz comes back and they lose in the first round?  What happens if Wentz isn’t ready to go and Foles lights it on fire again?  What happens if whoever starts is terrible next week and they don’t get in?
  • The answer to the 3rd question is the easiest.  It’d be Wentz in that case no matter what.
  •  I think we have to wait to see.  Talking like Wentz should be in consideration for being benched is insane, but we can’t act like Foles isn’t out there slinging it.  Did you see that bomb to Nelson Agholor??
  • DeShaun Watson did all he could yesterday.  The scrambles and extension of plays were amazing.  He did it with almost zero help besides DeAndre Hopkins, who, when having a good day, can be the only help necessary.  Yesterday was a good day.
  • The Foles final drive was heroic.  He made the throws and won the game after getting hurt.  Zach Ertz was unstoppable; that helped.
  • The Eagles offense looked like the Eagles offense we expected it to be.  It’s just really odd that this hasn’t happened with Wentz this season.
  • We had an instance in the Falcons-Panthers game where a quarterback I’d never heard of before played.  Shoutout to Kyle Allen!
  • Can the 49ers flip Nick Mullens for like a 5th round pick??
  • The 49ers defense, at least the front seven, had been underachieving for way too long and it’s finally starting to look like one that has three top ten picks in it.
  • They figured out that, if you can stop the Bears rushing game, then you have an excellent chance to beat them.
  • The Chiefs put up 31 last night and it felt like Seattle shut them down.
  • As impressive as Seattle’s performance was, let’s settle down a bit.  31 is a lot of points.
  • At the same time, that shut down got Seattle the win.  Russell Wilson and the running game torched KC’s defense, which has always been bad but wasn’t this big of a problem before.  It’s starting to emerge as more of one.
  • Wilson was just outstanding last night.  He expanded multiple plays by escaping outside the pocket and laid in beautiful deep balls.  The Chiefs didn’t get any value out of the rare times they did provide good coverage.
  • That game probably deserves its own column.  So many interesting things happened and Seattle has really emerged as a playoff threat.

Merry Christmas!  Enjoy the basketball tomorrow and please don’t watch Raiders-Broncos tonight.  College football stuff coming later this week.