The Saints finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. We know this. It’s fact.
What’s not fact, what is more subjective, is everybody’s idea of season-defining and memorable plays.
What follows is WWLTV.com’s order for the 10 plays – or series of plays – that stood out this season. You likely will disagree on the order, if not the exact plays themselves. Feel free to leave a comment, but we ask one thing of you – keep it clean.
5. Drew Brees’ pick-six before halftime against San Francisco (Nov. 25)
The Saints were on a roll when San Francisco came to town. New Orleans had won five of its past six games and had knocked Atlanta off as the last unbeaten team in the NFL two weeks earlier. There was real hope that, despite the 0-4 start and the off-the-field shenanigans, 2012 just might amount to something.
This game, in particular, was a grudge match for New Orleans. The 49ers had knocked the Saints out of the playoffs in the NFC divisional round, ending the season prematurely for what might have been the best New Orleans team in franchise history.
And with 7:58 to go in the first half, New Orleans had a 14-7 lead and had bottled up San Francisco. With 38 seconds to go in the first half, all the Saints had to do was kneel the ball down and go to halftime with a lead and momentum.
Alas, Brees faltered as he had earlier in the season against Carolina. The Saints rarely take a knee with time on the clock, confident that they can at least move into field goal range. But to do that, Brees generally has to play smart, using the boundaries and not get greedy.
He got greedy and he failed to notice San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks on a pass he tried to get to tight end Jimmy Graham down the hash marks. Brooks played the ball perfectly, intercepting it at the 50 and returning it for a touchdown that tied the game.
The play is that that until this season, you’d say Brees would make 10 times out of 10. That’s now nine times out of 10 and it was a costly one.
San Francisco scored on the opening possession of the second half, Brees threw another pick-six and the Saints never recovered.
4. Drew Brees fails clock management moment before halftime at Atlanta (Nov. 29)
As bad as the No. 5 play was, No. 4 is the ultimate Drew Brees head-scratcher.
New Orleans’ quarterback, the highest-paid player per year in the NFL, is well-known as one of the most-prepared signal callers in the league. He didn’t earn a Super Bowl MVP and set league record after league record by not being ready for any situation thrown at him.
With coach Sean Payton not being around this past season, the belief was that the leadership, especially in critical game situations, would fall on Brees’ shoulders. That’s what happens when you sign a five-year, $100 million contract.
And on this night in Atlanta, Brees was anything but himself. Yet, while his five interceptions were bad, it was one moment before halftime that sticks out the most.
On New Orleans’ previous series, it had cut Atlanta’s lead to 17-7 on a 1-yard Mark Ingram touchdown run. New Orleans’ defense forced the Falcons to punt the ball back with 2:24 to go in the half and it looked like the Saints were in position to cut even further into Atlanta’s lead.
In fact, Brees guided New Orleans from its own 29 to Atlanta’s 7-yard line. He even threw a touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles, but a pass interference penalty on tight end Jimmy Graham nullified it and put the ball at the Falcons’ 17.
With 45 seconds to play in the half and no timeouts remaining, Brees hit Sproles for a 12-yard gain. Instead of spiking the ball and killing the clock, Brees let valuable time tick off.
With only 12 seconds on the clock on second down, Brees again went to Sproles, again over the middle. But Sproles didn’t get into the end zone and instead of making it a one-possession game with at least a field goal, the Saints scored no points and the clock went to zeroes.
“That’s my mistake,” Brees said. “That can’t happen. Should have gotten points, at least three, and definitely another shot at the end zone. That was on me. That can’t happen.”
3. Malcolm Jenkins runs down Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson, defense has epic goal-line stand (Oct. 21)
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins isn’t the speediest defensive back for New Orleans. He also hasn’t completely capitalized on the potential he flashed early in his career. This year, switching to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense might have played a part in that.
Regardless, if the Saints were going to make something of 2012, they had to get on a winning streak and that meant winning at Tampa Bay.
If not for this sequence of plays, the season might have really gone downhill completely and early. But no play signified New Orleans’ defiance in giving than Jenkins running down the Bucs’ Vincent Jackson and then the defense stopping Tampa on four straight plays from inside the 2-yard line.
New Orleans was holding onto a 28-21 lead with 7:09 to go in the third quarter. Punter Thomas Morstead had pinned Tampa Bay at its own 4 and Tampa is likely thinking of just playing to change field position.
Instead, on second-and-10, quarterback Josh Freeman hit Jackson down the left sideline, Saints defensive backs Patrick Robinson and Roman Harper failing to make the proper play on the ball in the air and leaving the receiver open.
Those in Raymond James Stadium thought Jackson had an easy touchdown. Instead, Jenkins, from across the field, ran down the Bucs’ receiver for a 95-yard gain instead of a 96-yard touchdown.
That play didn’t mean anything, though, until the ensuing four plays.
Saints defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Sedrick Ellis stopped LeGarrette Blount for a one-yard loss on first down. Harper halted Blount at the 1 on second down and Jenkins stuffed Blount on third down at the line of scrimmage.
Then came Cam Jordan’s big play, chasing down Freeman on fourth down, coming up with series-ending sack.
“That was the play of the game for us defensively,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said at the time. “Malcolm didn’t give up on the play. Chased him down and gave us a fighting chance. We just bit down and everybody started doing their job.”
2. Robert Griffin III sticks in pocket, hits Pierre Garçon for 88-yard touchdown pass (Sept. 9)
Turns out we should have known from the outset that the Saints were going to have problems stopping teams with a new defense.
Week 1 was setup for the Saints to have success in spite of everything that went on in the offseason. New Orleans was facing a rookie quarterback at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with pent-up anger weighing them down.
Who was going to bear the brunt of New Orleans’ explosion of rage? Well, it was supposed to be rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.
It didn’t happen that way. Instead, the Saints knew they were in for a long afternoon on Washington’s 13th play of the game.
New Orleans had just taken a 7-3 lead when quarterback Drew Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 20-yard touchdown. And on the kickoff, Washington was called for holding, putting the ball at the Redskins’ 12-yard line.
This is when the Saints were supposed to put the hammer down and make Griffin pay for entering the NFL. Instead, Griffin stood in the pocket and watched as safety Malcolm Jenkins raced in at him after briefly biting on the play fake. He delivered a perfectly-placed pass to Garçon, who caught the pass in front of Corey White, Roman Harper and Patrick Robinson and raced to finish off the 88-yard touchdown strike.
The play was big for both the Saints and the Redskins. For New Orleans it was an ominous view into the future of a defense that would eventually give up more yards than any other team in NFL history. For Washington, it proved the club had found itself a franchise quarterback to lead it back into the playoffs.
In one fell swoop, the Saints’ had lost momentum and would never regain the lead. New Orleans also never would get above .500 again.
1. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles races 91 yards into the end zone as the Saints blow 17-point home lead (Sept. 23)
No play perfectly describes New Orleans’ season like Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles sprinting untouched 91 yards into the end zone on his way to 233 yards for the day.
New Orleans led 24-6 … at home … against the worst team in the NFL. And this one play changed the game and the Saints’ season. It’s the game that got away, the game that defined New Orleans’ year.
The Saints were 0-2 at the time but were looking at 1-2 and back in the picture for big things with Kansas City coming in to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And with 5:36 to play, quarterback Drew Brees put the Saints up 17 points with a touchdown pass to fullback Jed Collins.
One play changed everything.
Charles took the handoff, darted around left end into a gaping hole and galloped past anyone trying to catch him. In the end zone, he brushed off his arms, his knees and his cleats, dusting off any bit of hope New Orleans had of making that Sunday an easy one.
“It was a huge spark,” Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said. “It was a big turnaround for us. Jamaal had been running the ball well all day and his numbers had to be up there.”
The Saints managed little else the rest of the day, gaining just 26 more yards.
But it was that one play by Charles that changed the momentum of the day and, really, the momentum of the season.