Sunday, January 12, 2014
Going 0-for-Seattle dooms Saints' season
By Mike Triplett
Drew Brees and the Saints trailed 16-0 through three quarters on Saturday in Seattle.
SEATTLE -- The story of the New Orleans Saints' 2013 season can be told in one succinct sentence: They couldn't win at Seattle.
They call this place the Emerald City. But it might as well be made of Kryptonite as far as the Saints are concerned. Their season came to a screeching halt here Saturday with a 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs.
And really, there could not have been a more fitting place for the Saints' season to end.
For the second time in six weeks, the Saints were done in by the two elements that caused them the most problems all season long: a stifling pass defense and some nasty weather conditions.
Drew Brees and New Orleans' prolific passing offense were nonexistent in the first half. And by the time they finally showed up in the second half, they were already down 16-0. Their late rally was exciting -- but ultimately, too little, too late.
"In the end, against a team like this, in their place, in this situation, you gotta play closer to perfect than we did," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said.
So now the Seahawks move on to the NFC Championship Game. And the Saints move into the 2014 offseason, where their top priority has to be figuring out a way to make sure they play more of these January games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next year.
That's where the Saints make opponents look this hapless and hopeless. That's where the Saints force their opponents to play perfect -- just like Seattle does in this stadium that looked like a life-sized snow globe for much of the first half, with sheets of rain blackening the sky.
Brees didn't love the notion that the Saints need to play at home to reach the Super Bowl. But he also couldn't deny the basic truth of the situation.
"If you're saying what's the difference between being on the road here today versus had we been back in New Orleans in the Dome, obviously it's quite a bit different," said Brees, who threw for 34 yards in the first half and 275 in the second half. "I think we can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime. It just hasn't happened for us the times that we've come here. But, yeah, obviously there's a huge advantage to home-field advantage. I mean, we were 8-0 at home this year."
I've covered this Saints team since the beginning of the Brees-Sean Payton era, and I don't think I've seen a combination of opponent and elements that have caused more fits than the Seahawks inside of CenturyLink Field.
"I'd say it is [the biggest challenge we've faced]," Brees said. "The conditions have a lot to do with that. And they're a very stout defense, in all regards -- front four, linebackers, secondary. As complete a defense as there is in the league. I mean, there's a reason that they were top-ranked in so many categories.
"And playing here at home, with that crowd, there's a lot of reasons why they're one of the best."
Last week at Philadelphia, the Saints finally proved they could indeed win a playoff game on the road.
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But winning at Seattle proved to be a whole other challenge that they couldn't overcome this year. This one wasn't quite as ugly as the 34-7 shellacking on "Monday Night Football" last month. But it was awfully close for the first 30 minutes.
The Saints were actually happy with their game plan afterward, and I don't really disagree. They stayed patient throughout the first quarter, when the weather was at its nastiest and the wind was in their face. And they were down only 6-0 in the second quarter when they had the ball with the wind at their back.
But then running back Mark Ingram fumbled on the first play of the second quarter -- the game's only turnover and by far the costliest moment of the night. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch scored on a 15-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 lead two plays later.
"Every time I carry that football, I'm carrying the team's dreams and aspirations. And I let them down at a critical moment in the game. And that's unfortunate," Ingram said. "But I worked my butt off, fought hard, and it just wasn't enough today."
That's kind of how the whole team felt. They just weren't good enough on this day.
The Saints' offensive performance was ugly at times. Brees' first pass attempt down the field to a receiver in the second quarter sailed about 10 yards over Lance Moore's head; Brees said it got "caught up in the jet stream." A few of his other early passes were off target while the ball was slick and he was wearing gloves. Receivers dropped several passes.
Brees eventually started getting the ball downfield, but the Seahawks' defense took away both tight end Jimmy Graham (no catches until the final minute) and the Saints' screen passing game throughout the day.
The Saints deserve credit for their resilience, though. The defense was outstanding for most of the second half, forcing five consecutive punts, which allowed the offense to creep within 16-8 and actually get down to Seattle's 25-yard line with 4:09 remaining.
But then those imperfections crept up again. A delay-of-game penalty. A missed 48-yard field goal attempt by Shayne Graham (his second miss of the day). A breakdown by the defense on Lynch's 31-yard touchdown run.
A fitting finish on a day when the Saints were so far out of their comfort zone.
"Obviously, we planned on playing it differently. At the end of it, we weren't able to make enough plays," Payton said. "But I'm proud of the way our guys competed. We weren't able to get it done, and we just go from here. It's tough. It's always tough when you get this far and you're not able to finish.
"Obviously, it wasn't enough for what we aspire to do."