NEW ORLEANS — Did we time travel back to 2015 or something?
The New Orleans Saints lost 48-46 to the San Francisco 49ers Sunday and the "Drew Brees is brilliant while the defense can't even reach mediocrity" storyline felt ripped from the 7-9 on repeat sadness loop otherwise known as Saints football from 2014-2016. The only thing missing was Rob Ryan roaming the Saints sideline looking sad and confused.
The Saints defense picked the absolute worst time to have their worst game since the season opener against Tampa Bay last year. The Saints' typical aggressive football backfired, and the result is now they'll need help to get a bye in the playoffs.
The Saints' defensive collapse will let another one of Brees' truly great performances get memory-holed. The number of games Brees is amazing and the defense lets him down could fill an entire library or at least one of those 32-gigabyte memory sticks.
Brees threw for 349 yards and 5 touchdowns and for good measure scored one himself on a quarterback sneak. The Saints have never scored so many points and lost. Before Sunday they were 16-0 when scoring at least 46 points.
The longer we watch Saints football the crazier and more bizarre ways they create to break our hearts. Sunday is high on the list and, of course, it involved the 49ers.
Payton's Game Plan Was Great
Sean Payton's offensive game plan was one of his greatest ever. The Saints offense put up 465 yards and 46 points on the NFL's number 1 scoring defense and a 49ers pass defense that was by some advanced metrics the best pass defense of the last 30 years.
The 49ers held Michael Thomas in check until the Saints absolutely had to have Michael Thomas do Michael Thomas things and then Thomas once again became a force of nature. Michael Thomas broke the Saints single-season receiving yards record. We still have 3 games left. The Saints burned a historically great defense completely to the ground.
The Saints' first 4 offensive drives all ended in touchdowns, including the first two being scored by Jared Cook. Cook caught 2 passes, both for scores, and the 49ers had no answer for what Sean Payton had cooked up for the tight end. If not for a concussion on his second touchdown, Cook might have put together one of the all-time great games by a tight end in Saints history.
The Saints offense was rolling so good they didn't even miss a beat with Cook out and scored their next 2 possessions.
The only blemish on an otherwise perfect Payton plan was his insistence on giving Alvin Kamara the ball on the edges when it clearly wasn't working. Kamara had 17 touches for 43 yards and hasn't found the end zone since Week 3 in Seattle. The current version of Kamara is not what we saw in 2017-18. It didn't matter as Saints scored 46 but the Saints need vintage Kamara to go deep in the playoffs.
I wonder if Mark Ingram took Kamara's fun mojo to Baltimore?
Some of you are likely howling at your computer about Payton's decision to go for 2 when Saints led 13-7. It seemed odd but the 49ers had a penalty that put the ball at 1-yard line which vastly increases the odds of converting for 2 points and the Saints had a play they liked.
I'd equate it to playing blackjack and doubling down on 11 when the dealer is showing a 4. It's the right statistical play. It's aggressive but it's correct. That it didn't work but didn't really affect the outcome. The Saints scored 33 more points after not converting and leading 13-7.
Blaming a first-quarter missed conversion as the reason for a 48-46 loss is like losing 5 grand at a casino and lamenting the $100 you lost on your first hand of blackjack. Should you have stayed on 17 against a face card? We can argue it all night but it's not the reason you left the casino with an empty bank account.
The Saints also missed on a fake punt but Payton in the biggest moments is going to reveal his true character and that character is borderline reckless aggression. If you only like risky Payton when things work out, you don't really like risky Payton.
Brees summed up the Saints' attitude perfectly about being risky, “Listen, we’re gonna play aggressive, we’re gonna take chances and we’re not gonna make any excuses.”
I wasn't huge fan of the fake punt, but I'm 100% sure if the 49ers had run it and Saints covered it like San Francisco did the Saints would have been called for pass interference, holding, hands to the face, assault and battery, and like 3 other penalties we didn't know existed.
Do you know how I said Sean Payton had a superb plan against the NFL's top defense? Dennis Allen had the opposite of that against the 49ers offense.
The Saints' defense looked confused, tentative, and by the end, their strategy seemed to be 'Let's just blitz everyone and hope it works out'. Nothing else worked so why not just get recklessly aggressive. The only problem was on 4th and 2, C.J Gardner-Johnson has to tackle George Kittle and limit that to a short a first down catch. When you blitz seemingly everything in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome not bolted down on the game's biggest play, a missed tackle means death. And so it was.
There are no moral victories when you are 10-3 and fighting to secure home-field advantage but Sunday did show us the Saints can go blow for blow with best teams in the NFC and our concerns about the offense aren't really a problem because Drew Brees can still be transcendent, and as long as that's still possible, the Saints can get to a Super Bowl. The trouble is Sunday's Saints' loss made doing so much more arduous.
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Ralph Malbrough is a contributing writer and Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at @SaintsForecast or download the Saints Happy Hour Podcast.
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