The Saints are built for the pandemic postseason
In Payton, Brees and the defense we trust.
Diana has put away her bosom. Apollo has lifted his skirt. The playoffs have been launched.
Improbably, the NFL has completed its entire slate of games in this pandemic-affected season (with some scheduling quirks here and there) and now the playoffs are upon us. The Saints are 12-4 and possess the number two seed, good enough for at least two home playoff games if they beat the Chicago Bears next Sunday afternoon.
A normal person would be excited. Instead, I am filled with anxiety and a little bit of sadness. If the Saints go on a run, how do we celebrate as the coronavirus ravages our community? If we lose, is this really it for Drew Brees?
In years past, the second seed would have bought the Saints a bye. But not anymore, as the NFL has added a third wildcard team to each conference, because TV revenue. There will inevitably be fans who complain that the NFL has found a way to screw the Saints yet again through the new playoff format.
As week 17 drew to a close, there were also New York Giants players and fans who cried foul because of what transpired during the Sunday Night Football game between the Washington Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were competitive with rookie Jalen Hurts at QB, and had they won, would have eliminated Washington and given the NFC East crown to the 6-10 Giants.
But Philly head coach Doug Pederson inexplicably benched the dynamic Hurts in the fourth quarter for the ineffective Nate Sudfeld, who is about as dangerous as a raw potato. The Eagles lost and the competitive balance of the game was called into question.
As various players and fans cry on Twitter, Roger Goodell is probably sitting in his leather chair in the league office in New York, shrugging while he eats a $25 Cobb Salad. He doesn’t care about your problems.
And, as it relates to the Saints, neither does Sean Payton. That seems to be the biggest takeaway of the Saints’ 2020 season: this team is determined to win, no matter what, no excuses. Regardless of what happens on Sunday against the Bears, 2020 was one of Payton’s crowning achievements.
The Saints finished 12-4 despite losing Brees to injury for four and a half games; despite losing the entire running back room in week 17 due to a positive COVID test and contact tracing; despite losing Michael Thomas for almost the entire season; despite major injuries to every position group on defense; and despite dealing with a COVID scare the night before the Lions game, as well as all of the other protocols and precautions that we don’t even know about.
“Obviously, we were in this COVID season where there were just so many unknowns. It felt like rules and protocols were changing weekly, then combine that with the number of injuries and various situations that we kind of found ourselves in this year,” Brees said after Sunday’s 33-7 win over Carolina. “I think Sean will be the first one to tell you that, man, it’s about the culture that we’ve created here. And it’s about the staff. It’s about the way the guys care about one another. But he’s certainly done a tremendous job.”
You hear that phrase thrown around a lot these days – the culture. It has almost become a cliché, but when it comes to the Saints, it really does matter, and it all starts at the top with Payton.
The worst squads of his tenure – the 7-9 teams of 2014, 2015 and 2016 – had lost their way. The players weren’t buying in. And then Payton had the wherewithal to self-scout and rebuild the team. Every corner of the fan base has feared what the team would look like without Brees, but now we’ve seen it – 8-1 with two QBs that will likely never ascend to Brees’ level of greatness.
And it’s because of Payton (as well as Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland) and the way he has built this team. He is arguably the best coach in the league because of how he is able to win with the bad hands he has been dealt over and over again.
And now we enter the undiscovered country. The postseason. No one knows what’s going to happen.
Last season, the Saints crushed the Panthers in week 17, didn’t get the help they needed elsewhere around the league, and promptly laid an egg against the Vikings in the Wildcard round. This is a scenario that could very well play out again in 2021, as the inconsistent Bears have a defensive front that has the talent (though not quite the production) to make life miserable for Brees and his interior offensive linemen, just like the Vikings did last postseason.
But one thing this Saints team has that last year’s did not is that experience. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that this possibility has certainly crossed Payton’s mind. The Saints beat the Bears 26-23 in OT in week 8, and I’d also wager Payton is not taking that experience for granted, either.
With or without their stars, the Saints have found a way to win in 2020. Heading into the great unknown of the postseason, this is what calms my nerves.