Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
When covering playoff games, sometimes experts and media like to craft a complicated narrative on why Team A beat Team B. They want to apply some deeper meaning to why a team won or lost. Maybe Team A was tougher and Team B is soft or Team B wasn’t true to themselves and lost. Psychology 101-type nonsense.
The New Orleans Saints playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks was not one of those games. Sometimes why a team wins is really simple. Saturday was one of those times. The Seattle Seahawks are better than the New Orleans Saints. It’s not any more complicated or simple than that.
For the Saints to win a playoff game in Seattle they needed to play almost flawlessly, get a couple breaks, and then take advantage of those breaks. They couldn’t do that.
The Saints were a disaster on special teams in the first quarter as Thomas Morestead shanked two punts and Shane Graham missed a field goal. Mark Ingram then fumbled early in the second quarter and suddenly the Saints were down 13-0. The only difference between the start of the Saints first trip to Seattle and Saturday was four points and rain.
Unlike December the Saints managed to hang on because of Rob Ryan’s defense. Suddenly the Saints were down 16-8 with just over four minutes left and they got the big break a team needs to steal a road playoff game against a superior team.
Drew Brees, probably knowing time was growing short, threw a deep ball into double coverage for Robert Meachem. It should have been intercepted but instead it got tipped twice and suddenly Meachem had it and the Saints had first and ten at the Seattle 25.
This was the Saints moment.
The Saints then proceeded to have as a bad an offensive set of plays as I’ve ever seen under Sean Payton. The Saints had a delay of game, then an incompletion, then they called timeout, followed by two more incompletions and a horribly missed field goal.
It was as if God walked up to the Saints, handed them a winning lottery ticket, then watched in horror as the Saints thanked him and used it to wipe their nose.
If either Meachem scores on the play or the Saints punch it in the game is completely different. Until that moment Seattle was in complete control and their fans were having just a grand old time.
Saints score and worst case it’s 16-14 with just under four minutes left and that stadium would have been in a panic. Everyone would have looked up and thought, “We might lose this! And our offense hasn't done anything the entire second half.” We would have had that wonderful moment where a stadium gets really quiet as their season verges on collapse.
In playoff games when you get a huge break you have to cash in on it. Imagine 2009 if Tracy Porter drops either of those interceptions in the NFC Championship or Super Bowl. Everything changes. You can blame whoever you like for the loss Saturday. Just know the moment the Saints couldn’t cash in on the Meachem gift, the game was effectively over.
Saturday was odd in that the Saints plan going into the game was a really good one. Sean Payton wanted to run the ball, stay out of third and long, and not allow Seattle the chance to create turnovers with their brilliant secondary. The problem was the Saints couldn’t stay out of third and long. They would move the ball but eventually they’d face a third and long and fail.
Even against good defenses Drew Brees can usually find a way to convert a handful of those third and 10 plays. Against Seattle he just couldn’t. Seattle’s secondary at home is so good and physical it’s just too steep a climb. Throw in the bad weather making long field goals almost impossible and it felt like the Saints offense was consistently moving but not going anywhere.
Sean Payton also didn’t have a great day calling plays. He stuck to the screen too often but he was at a huge disadvantage because the Saints most explosive player, Jimmy Graham, was being completely taken away. Seattle exposed the biggest hole going forward for the Saints offense and that hole is speed at receiver.
This might sound odd to say but the biggest thing the Saints needed Saturday was 2009 Devery Henderson. Henderson never was an elite receiver or even a number two but what he did was deliver big plays. And other teams feared him.
They had to respect Henderson going deep, because if they didn’t Drew Brees could destroy a team’s great 30 minutes of football with one 70-yard bomb. When the Saints offense is unstoppable it has the ability to hit big plays against elite defenses. The 2013 Saints couldn’t.
While the 2013 Saints season is over, there are real reasons for optimism. As WWLTV.com's Bradley Handwerger explained, the core built in 2006 is getting older, but despite losing draft picks the Saints built a new core in the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
Just as Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Roman Harper, Zack Strief, and Lance Moore start to age the Saints have brought in Akiem Hicks and Corey White (2012 Draft) and Kenny Vaccaro, Terron Armstead, John Jenkins, and Kenny Stills (2013 Draft). Throw in free agent additions Keenan Lewis and Curtis Lofton and suddenly the Saints future looks very bright.
The Saints basically rebuilt the worst defense in NFL history in one off-season. So now they have the core of a top five defense on cap friendly contracts. It’s remarkable. If I told you in August the Saints would play in two postseason games and the defense would be the strength what would you have told me? Crazy but it’s exactly what happened.
The Saints went 12-6, won their first-ever road playoff game, had a top five defense, and survived losing a ton of players to injury. If that’s disappointment then I’d like that disappointment a lot more please.
Some might say the Saints window to win more Super Bowls is closing fast and in August I’d have agreed, but the Saints hit home run after home run in the 2013 offseason and have kept the window wide open.
Every season is different and no one knows the future, but the playoff loss to Seattle doesn’t feel like the missed chance at a Super Bowl like the heartbreak at San Francisco in 2011 did. The loss Saturday feels more like the 2006 loss to the Chicago Bears where better days were ahead.
So football season is over. Excuse me, I have to reintroduce myself to my family and find something to do until August.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.