For a second consecutive year, the Saints lost a playoff game they had no business losing. A year ago, it was the Minneapolis Miracle that sent New Orleans home for the offseason. This time around, no miracles were needed. The Rams simply took advantage of poor coaching by Sean Payton and uncharacteristically shaky play from Drew Brees.
If Brees hits on one or two more passes and avoids what proved to be a costly interception in overtime, New Orleans is probably headed for the Super Bowl. If the referees do not inexplicably swallow their whistles after Nickell Robey-Coleman decked Tommylee Lewis early on a key third down late in the game, the game likely ends with Will Lutz sending the Saints to New Orleans in the dying seconds. But neither of those bad breaks should take Payton off the hook.
Payton was bad. Especially in the second half, when the Saints were given multiple opportunities to put the game away. But Payton seemed to be more concerned with getting his pet project Taysom Hill the ball than he was with going to the Super Bowl.
It was as if the Saints forgot they had Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas on their roster. After a busy first half, specifically in the passing game, Kamara touched the ball just seven times in the second half and overtime. Seven! He was the best player on the field and was relegated to a secondary role with the game on the line. Thomas was M.I.A. throughout the game. He made a key catch on the first touchdown drive and was barely heard from for the rest of the afternoon.
Sure, the Rams put extra eyes on Thomas and Kamara. They were doubling Thomas on key downs from the jump and ended up doing the same with Kamara after his big first half. But Payton has to do a better job of feeding his best players in key moments — especially in the red zone, where Hill was far too involved.
More concerning than Payton’s usage of his weapons was his time management. Particularly at the end of the game. The Saints’ final drive started with just over five minutes left on the clock. Payton and the Saints had two options: Go for a quick score and hope to get another possession before the end of regulation if the Rams did tie it up, or try to run out that five minutes while getting into overtime. After the Saints got into field goal range with just two minutes on the clock, the choice should have been obvious: Run the clock and set up a game-winning field goal with only seconds on the clock. Instead, Payton called a first-down pass that fell incomplete. That was followed by a run for no gain and then another incomplete pass. The sequence started with 1:58 left on the clock. It ended with 1:48 remaining. The Rams tying things up felt inevitable at that point.
The Saints were lucky to be playing this weekend after Payton’s conservative coaching nearly cost them a win in last weekend’s Divisional Round. With New Orleans sitting on a lead and gashing the Eagles secondary, Payton took his foot off the gas and opted to run out the clock instead of putting the game in Brees hands. After a curious third-and-7 run led to a missed field goal, the Eagles got the ball back and were marching down the field before a Nick Foles pass slipped through Alshon Jeffery’s hands into the waiting arms of a Saints defender.
Payton did not catch such a break this time around. His team caught a bad one with officials missing an obvious pass interference call that will undoubtedly be the big story after the Rams went onto win. But that call was not the reason the Saints’ season is now over. Nor was Brees’ interception. This loss falls on Payton.
Yes, the refs missed an obvious pass interference, but Payton’s coaching was a far bigger issue.