Forecast: Bad loss, but it could've been worse

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter (right) and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton meet at mid field following the game at Raymond James Stadium. Photo: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
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Did the New Orleans Saints miss a golden opportunity Sunday at a chance to host the NFC Championship later in the playoffs or will the 31-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers be a game we’ll all forget before LSU is finished playing New Year’s Day?   

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What we know for sure is the 2017 New Orleans Saints won their sixth division title in franchise history courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons 22-10 win versus the Carolina Panthers. Dear Falcons, the thank you fruit cake is on the way. 

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So before we get to the Saints being uneven and kind of a mess on the field of play, let’s discuss if the playoff path they will now face is better than the one they would have been on if they had defeated the Bucs. While watching the Saints lose is never enjoyable, I’ll admit watching Jameis Winston throw the game winning touchdown with nine seconds left gave me a very strange feeling of, “Well since the Falcons are going to win and the Los Angeles Rams have lost, this isn’t the worst outcome. “ 

I’m actually a little relieved to not have to watch the Saints have to play the Falcons for the third time in five weeks. Granted, Atlanta hasn’t looked anything close to as good as they did last year on their way to the Super Bowl, but Julio Jones terrifies me in a way Cam Newton simply does not. 

An added benefit to the Saints losing to the Bucs is now they are positioned to play a possible second round playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles who are without their MVP candidate quarterback Carson Wentz. This path seems to present the Saints with a better path to the Super Bowl. 

The counter argument is Atlanta hasn’t been great all year, they are never going to recapture the magic they lost when a 28-3 Super Bowl lead went bust, defeating the Falcons at home in the playoff game would make 2017 one of the great seasons in Saints history, and being the third seed in the NFC playoffs makes it more likely the Saints host the NFC Championship game. 

My response to this is, “I’d rather avoid the possibility of losing a home playoff game to the Falcons.” Sure having to watch Cam Newton dap and Superman all over the Mercedes-Benz Superdome would be awful but nothing would be as awful as watching Atlanta celebrate a playoff win in New Orleans.   

Besides, I believe Carolina is a better matchup for the Saints anyway. Since 2012, the Saints have scored less than 23 points against the Panthers only three times with Drew Brees at quarterback. During that time the Panthers have been a top 12 scoring defense three times. So the loss to Tampa is far from a disaster, which more than I can say for how the Saints played at times Sunday. 

The Saints lost by being almost a complete disaster on special teams, despite Alvin Kamara having the longest kickoff return in Saints history. It’s a shame Tommylee Lewis’ fumbled punt and a fake field goal overshadowed one of the funnest plays of 2017. Kamara faked like he was going to kneel then coasted for 106 yards in what looked like for him a leisurely jog to the end zone. If I had to sum up the 2017 Saints in one sentence it’d be, “The rookies were magical.” 

While Kamara was scoring twice and breaking the Saints rookie touchdown record set by George Rogers in 1981, Marcus Williams was reminding everyone he’s been a pretty special rookie too with a pair of interceptions.  

My best explanation for Sean Payton dialing up a fake field goal where Wil Lutz tried to run for a first down is Lutz gave Payton a horrible secret Santa gift and this was payback. Ok, that’s probably not accurate, but having your kicker try to run for a first down in the season finale and get exposed to injury seems pretty high on the bad idea scale.  

The Saints defense allowed 455 yards of offense and Tampa converted an almost unbelievable 13 of 18 third downs. The Bucs ran 81 plays to the Saints 58, which is skewed in part because of the Kamara kickoff, but it’s mostly because the Saints were as bad on third down as they’ve been all year. 

Does this portend doom for the Saints next Sunday against Carolina? If the Saints allow 72 percent conversions on third downs to Carolina and allow a special teams touchdown, then yes they probably are doomed, but why think negative on the day the Saints won a division title? From 0-2 to 11-5 is a hell of a season.  

The Saints get a home playoff game; where Drew Brees has never lost, against a team they handled fairly easily twice already. Sometimes the thing you thought you wanted isn’t the best thing for you. Let’s hope that’s the case for the Saints heading into 2018.  

Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at saintshappyhour@gmail.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes. 

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