Breakout Live breaks down the four conference championship contenders. Next up: The New Orleans Saints.
New Orleans Saints
How they got here:
To understand New Orleans’ path to their 2nd home NFC Championship game since 2009, you have to hearken back to their “pentacular” 2017 draft. Lattimore, Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Kamara, and Anzalone, the first 5 picks from that draft, have been key contributors from their inception with the Saints. Lattimore not only contributed but won the Defensive Rookie of the Year, while Alvin Kamara got the same honor on the offensive side of the ball.
It’s not a well publicized fact, but the Saints reeled off 7-9 seasons in 4 out of 5 years before the Magic 5 arrived. Sean Payton, who was hired the same year as Mike McCarthy, somehow survived the lean years in New Orleans and is now making some of his most soulful jazz music with Drew Brees, who celebrated his 40th birthday this Tuesday.
The Saints 2018 season began inauspiciously with a 4-game suspension to Mark Ingram and a home loss to what would become the putrid Buccaneers and their benched and forgotten quarterback, Fitzmagic. On the heels of losing their home opener, Week 2 brought the Tyrod Taylor-led Browns into the Superdome. It took a Wil Lutz field goal with 26 seconds left to escape an 0-2 start that would’ve had everyone questioning if they could get back off the mat after the devastating “Minneapolis Miracle” that ended their Super Bowl dreams in 2017.
From there, the Saints would go on a tear, scoring 40+ points in 5 of their next 8 games and vaulting Drew Brees to league MVP favorite. Michael Thomas wrecked the Saints single-season marks in receptions and yards with 125 and 1405. New Orleans would blemish the Rams perfect 8-0 record with a 10-point win at home, which set them up as the 1-seed. The Saints would overcome a 14-point 1st quarter deficit to break Nick Foles’ magic wand and send the Saints into a rematch with the 14-3 Rams in the NFC Championship game this Sunday.
How they can win:
Matching the opposing team’s intensity would be a great place to start for the Saints, who have been outscored 31-10 in the 1st half of their last two playoff games. The Saints showed vs. Philadelphia they couldn’t get up for a team they blasted by 41 points during the regular season. Now they have to try vs. a revenge-minded team they jumped out to a 35-14 lead in Week 9.
The saving grace for the Saints is they remember what happened when they took their collective foot off the gas in the 2nd half vs. the Rams: 18-straight points from L.A. to tie the game. New Orleans needs Ingram and Kamara to churn more than the 115 yards yards against the league’s worst YPC run D. It’ll be very interesting to see how the Rams line up in this one. In the Week 9 matchup, they loaded up to stop Kamara and Ingram, and were effective, but Michael Thomas went bonkers with 12 catches for 211 yards and touchdown.
Aqib Talib didn’t play in that one but he will this time around, making it imperative the Saints get something from their passing game outside of Michael Thomas. Payton tried to get recently returned Ted Ginn involved vs. the Eagles, but he never got on track. Rookies Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood need to punch above their weight and readiness if Talib shuts down or contains Thomas and Donald and Suh stifle Kamara and Ingram the way they obliterated the Cowboys rushing game.
The Saints OL needs the game of their lives vs. an inspired Suh and Donald, who smell Super Bowl, and their DL needs someone to rise to the occasion in Sheldon Rankins’ absence. Not only are Rankins’ 8 sacks not lining up in this one, neither is his stout run play. That’s bad enough with Todd Gurley coming to town, but this time he’s bringing C.J. Anderson with him, who looks like Jerome Bettis in his prime.
In the end, the Saints need to make the home crowd a palpable advantage from the time the ball is kicked until the Superdome scoreboard reads zeroes at the end of the 4th quarter. Payton and Brees’ experience with the insane domed 12th man advantage is enough to have the Mayor of Atlanta dreading rolling out the red carpet while the Saints go marching into her Super Bowl.