Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
Sean Payton did something so simple yet so brilliant late against San Francisco we need to discuss it. Payton gave a graduate seminar on clock management and I'm not sure many people noticed.
The reason it was brilliant is because I believe if Payton hadn't managed the clock how he did no one would have criticized him for it and yet his clock management was a critical factor in the Saints win.
99 percent of coaches don't even think to manage the clock how Payton did. The only coach who might have done it the same way is Bill Belichick. Most coaches are barely competent at clock management and if you doubt that watch the replay of the Chicago Bears-Baltimore Ravens game where Bears coach Marc Testman didn't use any of his timeouts during the final two minutes to try to force the Ravens to punt in a tie game. Maybe Testman thought he gets a Christmas bonus for any unused timeouts?
Les Miles totally believes that last sentence is true.
Clock Management is something where most fans just want their team's head coach to not be a disaster. Sean Payton is a master in those spots but against the 49ers he took it to another level.
The Saints were trailing 20-17 and Garrett Hartley was lining up for the game tying field goal when Sean Payton called time out with 2:11 left on the clock.
Why call time out before the two-minute warning on game tying field goal attempt? Aren't you giving your opponent more time to possibly beat you if you tie the score? Perhaps, but Payton realized whether Hartley makes the field goal or not the Saints need to have the 49ers take possession before the two minute warning. The Saints need as much time on the clock no matter what happens and Payton tried to make sure that happened.
Calling a timeout meant if Garret Hartley misses the kick the 49ers get the ball back with 2:06 on the clock and have to run a first down play before the two-minute warning. If Hartley makes the kick, the game is tied, and if Thomas Morstead's kickoff is a touchback (it was) the 49ers are still forced to run a play before the two-minute warning. By calling the timeout before the two minute warning Payton takes away San Francisco's ability to melt away the remaining clock if the Saints defense forces a three and out.
If Sean Payton lets the clock run to the two minute warning before Hartley's field goal the game could have played out completely different.
On first down following the Hartley field goal the Saints sacked Colin Kaepernick with 2:01 on the clock. If Payton hadn't used a timeout before the two-minute warning he would have used it here with probably 1:55 left.
At that point Jim Harbaugh might have decided to play for overtime and run on second and third down and force the Saints to burn their remaining time outs and punt the ball. Not a crazy possibility as the 49ers were backed up and their offense had one first down the entire fourth quarter. If Harbaugh does this the Saints would have gotten the ball back with about a minute left and no timeouts.
One minute left is plenty of time to have Drew Brees lead the team to a field goal but by Payton managing the clock how he did the Saints got the ball with 1:41 left and still had a time out. The combination of great defense and calling a timeout before the two-minute warning by Payton got the Saints an extra 45 seconds and a timeout! That's incredible coaching and yet if he hadn't done it and the Saints had lost I bet you a million bucks no one says, 'One reason the Saints lost is Sean Payton completely screwed up the clock management.' It was so simple and fantastic nearly everyone missed it. File this under reason 12098 why Sean Payton makes $8 million a year and is the highest paid football coach in America.
Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun: All year long I'll be charting how the Saints defense does under Rob Ryan in certain situations. For a full explanation of how it works read this. Special thanks to the guys at Black and Gold Review who took the chart and made it interactive.
The 49ers averaged .35 yards rushing on first down if you include sacks and they only completed two passes of 10 or more yards in 20 attempts in 2nd and 3rd and long situations. The Saints rank third best in stopping teams on third down. Read this paragraph again. If you'd have predicted it in August I'd have called you insane but in November it's fact.
Last Week: 4-1
Atlanta (+8.5) vs. New Orleans: I've come to hate the Thursday night games. It's not really about the players getting the shaft over having to play on a short week but more about the games themselves being awful.
The NFL Network has delivered us such games as Washington-Minnesota and Tennessee-Indianapolis in 2013. Not exactly what I'd call riveting entertainment. Maybe I'm getting old but I want my Saints football on Sunday. The entire football experience is about Sunday afternoon in the fall.
I'll admit I only sort of half watch most Thursday games. I'm either flipping channels or arguing on Twitter about Archie Manning's Saints career. I lead a full life.
This game in Atlanta I suspect goes one of two ways; either the Saints blow the doors off the Falcons or Atlanta wins a close ugly game and it's the high point of their 2013 season.
You better hope the Saints jump out early on a horrible Atlanta defense, Matt Ryan continues throwing horrible interceptions, and before you've finished your second beer it's 17-0 Saints. This scenario will involve the Georgia Dome turning on the Falcons and Mike Mayok rambling for five minutes on how bad he feels for Falcons coach Mike Smith but understands why fans are booing. It's what I like to call 'Football Nirvana'.
I've been making jokes about how Atlanta looks worse and more disinterested the last three weeks because I hate the Falcons and like to laugh at their awful football team but it's also 100 percent accurate. The Sam's Choice version of Darren Sproles, Tampa's Bobby Rainey, had 163 yards and two scores Sunday against Atlanta. It was incredibly fun to watch. The only thing that makes Saints wins more fun is horrible Falcon losses as an appetizer.
The Saints should in theory be able to do whatever they want against an Atlanta defense ranked 26th. My gut tells me though we might see a similar sort of hangover the Saints had in this spot last year. If you remember, last season the Saints had just come off a knock down drag out fight with the 49ers and had to go to Atlanta four days later and Drew Brees delivered his worst performance as a Saint.
You are probably screaming, 'BUT THEY DIDN'T HAVE SEAN PAYTON!'
True, but playing San Francisco the week before a Thursday night game to me is the worst thing you can have on the schedule. The Saints managed to beat the 49ers this year but that game was as physical and intense as regular season games get. A full week of rest is probably badly needed.
I know the Falcons are terrible but after watching Carolina beat New England I get the feeling the Saints will be an absolute dogfight with the Panthers for the #2 seed and NFC South crown.
We all want the Saints to head to Seattle for the biggest game of the year at 9-2 and a chance to grab home field. I just have a feeling we aren't going to get it. The Saints are going to look tired, sluggish, and there will be yelling at your TV. Think Tampa week two but without the happy miracle ending. My advice is stay off Twitter, as Falcons fans will treat this as a combination Super Bowl/Peach Bowl win.
LSU (-4) vs. Texas A&M: I'm incredibly excited to watch these two teams combine for 1,000 yards of offense and 100 points. If you combined the two defenses I don't think you would have one competent unit.
This game also has a high probability of Les Miles doing something only Les Miles can do. That could include a fake punt, calling 9 timeouts, or singing a show tune in the post game press conference.
Carolina (-4) at Miami: The Panthers may murder Ryan Tannehill because Miami's offensive line is that bad. I've watched every Dolphin game this year and believe me when I say this is not a joke.
San Francisco (-5) at Washington: The 49ers can't go deep in the playoffs with that horrible
passing game but they can run Frank Gore 50 times Monday and destroy the Redskins.
Pittsburgh (+2) at Cleveland: An 8-8 team is making the playoffs in the AFC. Why not the Steelers?
Steelers 23-21 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.