NEW ORLEANS - The 2017 New Orleans Saints are a victory away from their sixth division title in team history and a lot, of course, has gone right to get to this point. We’ve all read and reveled in the Saints historically good 2017 draft, the good free agent signings the Saints made, and fortunate moves they didn’t make (Hello Malcolm Butler trade).
The 2017 Saints also made three really underrated and not very widely appreciated moves that have them back in the playoffs.
- Signing Manti Te'o
The Saints signed Te’o on March 21 to a two-year contract worth 5 million dollars. All he’s done is play 45 percent of the defensive snaps and when A.J. Klein went down with injury look like the guy who was a Heisman finalist at Notre Dame. I’ll be honest; the only thing I remembered about Te’o before the Saints signed him was he got catfished while in college. He’s been fantastic the last three weeks and was a huge reason the Saints beat Atlanta. Maybe Te’o looks so good because he’s finally over the Achilles injury he had last year or maybe new coach Mike Nolan is truly the ‘linebacker whisperer’ and knows how to the most out of guys? Te’o is so good I’m not sure Klein is getting his job back next season.
- Sean Payton’s lightning fast trade of Adrian Peterson
At the time it made sense to trade Peterson to Arizona as it was clear Alvin Kamara was special and needed to get the ball more, but lots of NFL coaches might have waited, not trusted a rookie, or been stubborn and tried to prove the Adrian Peterson signing was still going to work.
Payton sent Peterson to Arizona almost a month before the NFL trade deadline. Think of how the Saints season goes if Payton tried to make it work with Peterson a couple more weeks? Maybe the Saints are still 11-4 and everything is fine but somehow I doubt it. Sean Payton is a lot of things but to me one of his best qualities is as far as NFL coaches go is he’s not hard headed. The man has had five defensive coordinators and cut high draft picks when undrafted players like Pierre Thomas were better. The Saints paid Peterson $100,000 dollars a carry when you factor in his signing bonus and yet didn’t hesitate to move on from him. It’s easy to say giving Kamara the ball more was easy except I’m not sure most coaches pull the trigger and take the risk so soon. Payton did and it was critical for the 2017 Saints.
- Fantastic in season roster management
The Saints have been hit with a lot of injuries in 2017 and while a great draft and offseason depth like Te’o have been a big reason they’ve still won games, another reason is how they’ve managed the roster during the season.
There were reports in October the Saints were shopping Hau'oli Kikaha and maybe the only reason he’s still on the roster is because no other team made a decent offer for him. Whatever the reason, the Saints have needed him in December and he’s delivered. Did you see that fourth down tackle against Atlanta at the goal line? That was worth more than any 5th round pick the Saints might have gotten. In that moment Sunday when I was hugging my mom in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after his great play I wouldn’t have wanted the Cleveland Browns #1 overall pick for Kikaha.
The Saints in season roster moves are more than just about Kikaha. They added Justin Hardee and Taysom Hill to improve special teams and when defensive end depth was completely gone they plucked a unicorn off the street December 12th.
The unicorn’s name is George Johnson and he’s amazing. Johnson has played two games for the Saints and has 2.5 sacks. Of everything that’s happened in 2017, from the miracle comeback against Washington to Marshon Lattimore’s butt interception, the Saints finding a guy off the street in December who is averaging more than a sack a game is the craziest of them all.
Sometimes to go from 7-9 to a possible division title takes finding a unicorn when injuries might ruin your season.
Saints Mood and Meditation Music: Sigrid - Don't Kill My Vibe
Since I didn’t write a column after the Saints win over the Falcons on Christmas Eve can I just take a moment to say how amazing the atmosphere was in the Dome? Walking into the stadium my mom commented, “Lots of people holding up fingers wanting tickets, haven’t seen that in a while.”
It’s as if lots of people woke up Christmas Eve and thought, “I gotta go to this game.”
There’s something so great about the tension of the big game getting released by the big play in your team’s favor. Ted Ginn’s long touchdown catch and Mark Ingram’s long run felt like the release of the happiness valve for 73,000 people.
It’s days like Sunday that keep us coming back to sports forever. I want that vibe I felt leaving the Dome to last forever.
Last Week: 1-4
New Orleans (-7.5) at Tampa Bay: This feels like a great spot for the Saints. The Buccaneers have had their guts ripped out late the last two weeks and you’ve got to wonder if they can pull it together for a third straight week to care when they aren’t playing for anything but pride. Do you really take your job seriously the week after Christmas or do you just sit in the office looking at your phone and make New Year’s Eve plans? I’m guessing the Bucs won’t be laser focused this week.
Tampa has the fewest sacks on defense in the NFL (20) and allows 23.9 points-per-game, so the Saints should be able to move the ball and score points.
This is probably Dirk Koetter’s last game coaching Tampa Bay before the ‘Jon Gruden is coming back to the Bucs’ rumors overtake the airwaves. The Saints aren’t getting to the Super Bowl playing three road playoff games so winning here is critical. By the way have we seen enough of Jameis Winston to officially declare he’s never going to be very good? I feel like we have.
The Saints have picked a bad year to go 12-4 but a great year to make the playoffs as we have no idea what teams are making the NFC Championship. It’s wide open, but Saints need this win to be real playoff threat.
They’ll get it.
Carolina (-4) at Atlanta: The 2017 Falcons aren’t very good, they’ve just been extremely lucky in close games. I expect that to end for them Sunday in the most painful way possible.
Seattle (-8) vs Arizona: If you told me I could pick the team the Saints play next week, I’d pick Seattle. Their offensive line is terrible and their defense is injured. Plus, the Saints owe them some playoff revenge and I’d love to see it.
Pittsburgh (-13.5) vs Cleveland: The Browns are about to go 1-31 over a two-year period. Pick any two-year stretch of Saints history and it’s nothing that awful. Even the 1980 and 1981 Saints won five games over 2 years.
Buffalo (-3) at Miami: The two AFC wildcards are still up for grabs and the Bills haven’t been to playoffs since 1999 so I’m pulling for them. Let’s all enjoy our last Jay Cutler not caring about football experience shall we?
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.
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