Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
On December 2 the New Orleans Saints were preparing to face the Seattle Seahawks and had a chance to take control of the race for the top seed in the NFC. On December 22 they need to beat Tampa Bay to ensure they make the post season. The fall has been swift and painful. The Saints are on the verge of their worse collapse since 2002 when they lost their final three games to miss the playoffs. To any diehard Saints fan December 2002 is known as the seventh circle of hell.
If you're generous and have some holiday spirit you say there are reasons for the 2013 collapse but if you just want to yell then you'll probably call them excuses. Either way the Saints are 10-5 and are a very average 5-5 since starting 5-0 following a 17-13 gut punch from Carolina. Hooray for great starts right?
Sean Payton for most of Sunday did what he always does in big games; he got hyper aggressive. You know it's a big game when Payton breaks out his signature aggressive move; the surprise onside kick. Payton even got reckless and called a fake field goal that fooled no one and had Luke McCown throwing a pass. For the record if the Saints are going to throw a pass on fourth and 12, I prefer it's the guy who makes $20 million who does it. Crazy idea I know but nothing you can say will change my mind.
His boldest move blew up in his face however. If you showed the tape of Terron Armstead against Carolina in a theater it would be rated NC-17. There were false starts, sacks, and awfulness no decent eyes should ever witness again.
What's next at left tackle? Maybe a cardboard cutout of a young Willie Roaf? At least cardboard Willie won't false start. The offensive line at times looked as bad as I've seen the Saints look in the last 15 years. Drew Brees got sacked five times in the first half and at times the line didn't look worthy of being in pro football.
Oddly, Sunday's game was the reverse of the first meeting between the two teams. In the first meeting the Panthers led 6-0 but it should have been more. On Sunday the Saints pulled the exact same trick.
The Saints led 6-0, were in complete control but should have led at least 10-0. Then Brees throws a pick, DeAngelo Williams goes 43 yards and 28 great minutes is flushed down the toilet in 20 seconds.
In close, gut wrenching losses there are always plays to over analyze so let's dive right in.
I thought the Sean Payton called way to many screens and I wish he had called more runs instead. The Saints ran for 126 yards on 30 carries and here is something I never thought I'd ever say after the biggest game of the year, 'Mark Ingram needed the ball more.' Ingram had 83 yards on 13 carries and should have gotten the ball more even before he left the game for a stretch with an injury.
Believe me, no one is more surprised at the last sentence than I am. Watching Mark Ingram run with power and authority against a great Carolina defense had me wondering if the world had ended and we were all in the great beyond.
The game Sunday had a strange feel to it because an incredible down pour in effect made it a three quarter game.
The Saints actually had a very good drive to start the third quarter. A horrible call against Zach Strief killed it but it looked to me like Sean Payton had begun to figure out how to get the offense in gear. The drive ended with the horribly run fake field goal, the Panthers took over drove for a field goal to make it 10-6 and then the rains came. The Saints were basically stuck playing inside their own 5-yard line in a driving rain for the next 12 minutes of game time. I'm not sure any offense could have functioned in that mess, but the Saints definitely were not going to do much with their offensive line issues by trying to throw.
If you want to say Sean Payton should have been more aggressive late in the game to get the game clinching first down, the question I have for you I this, 'If Saints throw an incomplete pass, Carolina gets ball back with more time left and still wins would you have screamed for a run instead?'
The result was bad but I agreed with the decision. The Saints defense up to that point was magnificent. The Panthers hadn't converted a third down and their 10 points came off three big plays. The Saints defense deserved to be put in the best position to win the game. They were the stronger unit Sunday so if you are expecting a rant against conservative play calling, sorry to disappoint.
Cam Newton made some big time throws and the loss of Kenny Vaccaro finally showed up. Vaccaro doesn't have interceptions but he's been everything the Saints hoped he would be. His loss is huge.
If Saints had closed the deal we'd be talking about making Rob Ryan Bacchus for Mardi Gras. The defense was one more stop from everyone feeling the Super Bowl was at least a possibility.
It's time to re-calibrate your expectations. First, the Saints need to beat Tampa and ensure they make the playoffs for the fifth time under Sean Payton. Second they need to knock the final 'Never' off the Saints list. The 'Never' being the Saints never having won a road playoff game. That's how I'm defining success in 2013.
You might not like the fact just 20 short days ago the Saints seemed poised for another Super Bowl trip and now they are fighting for their playoff lives but that's where things are. The problem is I'm not even sure they can meet my newly lowered expectations.
I will end with some good news. We wanted the Saints to have a home playoff game this year and they will. It's 3:25 p.m. Sunday versus Tampa Bay. If you are of legal age restock your liquor cabinet, take deep slow breathes, and hold on tight.
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.