There is nothing left for the Saints to prove to anyone.
We know who the Saints are. Their talent is legitimate, and they can beat any team in the NFL at any venue. The defense is that good, and the offense should, at some point, be good enough. Drew Brees was in his first game back in four weeks coming off eleven broken ribs and a punctured lung, throwing passes to practice squad players, and New Orleans was a fumble recovery away from dropping the Kansas City Chiefs.
Instead, the fumble bounced back out of the end zone, New Orleans got two points instead of seven and lost the game, 32-29.
Perhaps that’s too simplistic.
No, it definitely is.
Something else would have happened, and the Saints probably would have lost the game anyway since they were never in control in this one. But at this point, the win or loss doesn’t really matter, which is weird to say, but if you accept that last week’s loss to the Eagles already put the NFC’s No. 1 seed out of reach, then you can focus more on the process than the results.
That isn’t spin. That isn’t looking at the bright side. That’s simply analyzing the situation and being realistic about what has already happened and what needs to happen moving forward. If you do that, there are reasons to be higher on this team than ever, depending on how optimistic you are about the things that aren’t yet right.
Sunday’s loss should have put to rest any questions about the defense. The first half against Philadelphia was the outlier. The New Orleans defense is elite. Full stop. No qualifiers. They were forced to stay on the field for nearly 42 minutes and 92 plays and only allowed 411 yards and 32 points. That’s basically a game and a half under normal circumstances.
Watching how organized the defense was on Sunday was nothing short of incredible. There were maybe only two plays, and possibly a couple of others, where someone clearly fell victim to bad eyes. One of them was Tyreek Hill’s touchdown during the first half when Marshon Lattimore slipped following his back-and-forth motion, and the other was when Malcolm Jenkins lost sight of Travis Kelce for just long enough to let him get open for a catch on the final drive.
Otherwise, the defense was excellent. Mahomes only hit on 55 percent of his 47 passes for 254 yards. He had three touchdowns, but one of them came on a short field after a Brees interception. The players on defense all stepped up and covered well. Travis Kelce had 68 yards. Hill had 53. New Orleans handled those players. There were solid plans for both, like doubling Kelce on some third downs and using Marshon Lattimore on Hill in some select situations with a safety over the top. But for the most part, the defense as a whole did its part to slow them down.
The coverage woes that appeared earlier in the season are officially over. If there was any doubt about the quality of the opponents after previous solid showings, this was the ultimate stress test. You can rest easy knowing the secondary is as good as it gets and isn’t going to find ways to beat itself.
The defensive front played its part by racking up three sacks and 11 quarterback hits. The only negative there is Cam Jordan lost his cool late in the game and got himself ejected for punching a Chiefs player. The other knock might be that Kansas City rushed for 179 yards, but the Saints were playing coverage and wanted the Chiefs to run the ball. Tough to do everything well against this team.
Perhaps this is a naïve view, but the thing that stood out to me while watching that game is that New Orleans is good enough to beat Kansas City. A team with a still-injured quarterback that was also without wide receivers Michael Thomas, Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway, and Tre’Quan Smith by the end of the game held its own with the defending Super Bowl champions. As bad as Brees looked at times, and how hard it felt to get things going on offense, he finished with 20 fewer yards than Mahomes and the same number of touchdowns.
That’s not a comparison of the two players. Visually, one was far superior to the other. It’s just added context to how well the defense played, and perhaps some perspective on how effective a few of the Saints’ drives were despite the high number of ineffective ones.
So, if this gets viewed through the prism of a process, there is only one question: Will the Saints get healthy enough on offense and gel during the playoffs? That’s it. Everything else is known. The defense is good enough to keep this team in any game against any opponent. The only thing left to find out is if Brees and Thomas will get healthy for the postseason.
But that is a big if. These two have only played 10 quarters together this season, and those came at the start of the year. Picking things up right away and having instant chemistry will be difficult after this long of a layoff. The one thing that might help is that Thomas appears to be an easy player to play with since he is so consistent in everything he does. If there is one player who can hit the ground running as far as chemistry goes, it is Thomas.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this season is unlike any other season the NFL has seen. Entering this week, road teams actually had a better record than home teams. This year, it’s more about getting into the tournament and peaking at the right time. The better teams should win, regardless of venue, and advance. Can’t lie here, though. Being home and having a week off is an advantage, but it isn’t as big of an advantage as it has been in previous seasons.
So, the next few weeks should simply be viewed as a tune-up for the playoffs for the Saints. This is like a veteran NBA team just doing what it needs to do to stay healthy and get into the playoffs. Winning still matters, of course, but it’s more about Brees getting his body right and finding a rhythm. As long as he finds that place before the playoffs, this team is still talented enough to win a title. These two losses sting, but the circumstances this year are different than they have been at other times.
This game was revealing. We know who the Saints are now, and there should be zero doubt about their identity. The path is there. The team just needs to be healthy enough to sprint down it once the playoffs begin.
S Marcus Williams – The safety had a great game in coverage. Kansas City didn’t have many explosive plays, and Williams acted as an enforcer on some plays over the middle. His ankle injury is a concern. Word is it isn’t expected to be too bad, but we’ll see.
DE Trey Hendrickson – The pass rusher had another great game, picking up two sacks and a forced fumble. He spent a lot of time going against a backup tackle, but that was his assignment, and he handled it. He got knocked out of action late in the game so that will be something to monitor.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen – The Saints were put to the test against the league’s best offense, and his group had an answer for everything. He’ll need to be even more on point if these teams meet again down the road, but he had a good showing in the first matchup.
The practice squad wide receivers – Lil’Jordan Humphrey came through with some decent plays, including a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. But there were some bad plays throughout from Tommylee Lewis, Juwan Johnson and Humphrey. Not all of the miscues were on them, but many were.
TE Jared Cook – The veteran tight end had a couple of tough plays, including one where he was so out of sync with Brees that the QB got flagged for intentional grounding. Cook seemed to take the blame for the play because he slammed his helmet after exiting the field. Cook has shown some signs of life late in the season. The team needs him to lock all the way back in for the playoffs.
LB Alex Anzalone – Maybe it’s unfair to put Anzalone here since everyone was moving quickly and trying to make a play on the fumbled punt that rolled into the end zone. But he had his opportunity to make what ended up being a potential big play and didn’t take advantage.
The Saints only sent five or more pass rushers on six plays. This team was locked in on playing coverage and trying to keep the damage down the field to a minimum. The effort to double players in the passing game superseded the need for an aggressive pass rush. And it wasn’t really needed. The Saints defensive line consistently got pressure on Mahomes.
The Saints were somewhat conservative in this one with their personnel groupings, which has been the case in many other games that have had replacements in for injured players.
• One running back, one tight end, three wide receivers – 31 plays
• Two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers – 7 plays
• Two quarterbacks, one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers – 5 plays
• One running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers – 4 plays
• Two running backs, three wide receivers – 2 plays
• Two quarterbacks, six offensive linemen, one running back, one tight end, one wide receiver – 1 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, three tight ends – 1 play
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers – 1 play
The Saints played 68 snaps of nickel defense (five defensive backs), 14 snaps of dime (six defensive backs), nine snaps of base (four defensive backs), and one play with five defensive linemen, three linebackers and three defensive backs.