Let’s give credit where it’s due: the New Orleans Saints fought to the last minute and never conceded defeat to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. They rallied back from a huge deficit to keep this game competitive to the final play.
But it wasn’t enough. The Saints lost 27-19. Their record is 5-5 and they’re hanging onto the NFC lead by a thread. Dennis Allen’s team is sloppy, undisciplined, and too slow to start. Now they’re banged-up and in risk of falling behind in the worst division in pro football.
How did we get here? Let’s break it down by asking and answering three questions:
What went right?
What went wrong?
And what’s the bottom line?
What went right?
There wasn’t much to write home about offensively, but the Saints did run well when they chose to do so. Alvin Kamara gained 42 yards on just nine attempts, including a pair of two-point conversions to cut into Minnesota’s lead. The Saints should have leaned harder on the run game when they had the opportunity (including more carries for Taysom Hill, who curiously saw just one rushing attempt, gaining 6 yards), but we’ll stow that for later.
Chris Olave had his best game in weeks once Jameis Winston took over for Derek Carr. Carr didn’t target Olave once until he was injured midway through the third quarter, connecting on a 15-yard lob to the receiver. With Winston at quarterback, Olave totaled five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. That’s not including a 24-yard gain that was wiped out by an offsides penalty on Rashid Shaheed. Winston did a better job giving Olave opportunities to impact the game and he responded accordingly.
What went wrong?
The pass protection was not up to the task of managing Minnesota’s blitz-heavy defense, which was something we discussed leading into the game. Carr struggled to navigate a crowded pocket and wasn’t playing very well before his injury, which happened on a play where he stepped up under pressure to make a great throw.
Winston deserves a lot of credit for rallying the offense late in the game; he’s responsible for 16 of the 19 points they scored on the afternoon, having led multiple scoring drives. But he wasn’t perfect and it’s easy to see why he’s a backup. He was intercepted twice and overthrew his receivers on several open looks downfield. He’s too high-variance for a team to lean on as its starter.
But let’s focus on the defense. The Saints may have buckled down in the second half, limiting Joshua Dobbs to just 48 passing yards and 4 rushing yards, but that’s after they gave up 220 passing yards and 40 rushing yards in the first half. And that’s been their story all year. They’re too slow. Too slow to start games quickly, too slow to adjust to any quarterback who can use their legs, and too slow to adjust. By the time they woke up it was too late.
And what's the bottom line?
This is who the Saints are. This is the kind of football team they signed up for when they hired Dennis Allen, failed to replace Pete Carmichael, and budged hundreds of millions of dollars for Derek Carr. They’re a team with an unreliable-at-best offense and a head coach whose team is undisciplined and prone to self-inflicted wounds; they were penalized nine times for 74 yards, awarding the Vikings multiple first downs by penalty and wiping out game-changing interceptions and sacks and first down conversions of their own.
Allen’s Saints are 2-9 in games when facing a deficit of 10 or more points. They don’t have enough fight in them to seal the deal even if proud veterans like Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, and Tyrann Mathieu are unwilling ito throw in the towel. Even with the healthiest roster and the easiest schedule in the NFL, their ceiling is a .500 record, and that’s not good enough. This game was very much a litmus test for their playoff chances. When facing another team with playoff ambitions on equal footing, the Saints were found lacking.