What happened to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game will live forever in infamy. The hit on Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis by Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the game was such a clear violation that it could have been flagged for either pass interference or a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Yet no flag was thrown, not even by an official standing a mere six yards away from Robey-Coleman’s spearing hit as the pass remained over both players’ heads. Had the foul been acknowledged, the Saints would have at the very least had an opportunity to burn more clock before a field goal attempt.
The missed call gave the Rams new life, however, there were plenty of moments within the Saints control that could’ve improved the Saints chance of winning. It shouldn’t be forgotten that New Orleans held two separate two-score leads during the game, and still had the first opportunity to score in overtime after winning the coin toss.
Here are some opportunities the Saints missed that would have increased their chance of winning.
New Orleans Saints Super Bowl Dreams Wiped Out by Missed Opportunities
Kicking Field Goals on First Two Drives
Last week, the Philadelphia Eagles got off to a 14-0 start against the Saints, which New Orleans didn’t overcome until the third quarter. This week, it was the Saints turn to start fast, with scores on their first three drives. Still, they held just a 13-0 lead because of two squandered opportunities inside the Rams 20-yard line.
New Orleans converted on two third down attempts on their opening possession and nearly scored a touchdown on their third attempt. From the Rams 19-yard line, Drew Brees threw a jump ball to tight end Dan Arnold, who couldn’t secure the catch as he went to the ground. It wasn’t an easy catch by any means, but one that’s expected of NFL receivers with a Super Bowl trip on the line. Will Lutz made a 37-yard field goal on the next play.
Following an interception by Saints linebacker Demario Davis on the ensuing Rams drive, New Orleans took over at the Rams 16-yard line. Two plays later, they were facing third and nine, and had to settle for another Lutz field goal after a screen pass to Alvin Kamara fell four yards short of a first down.
Defensively New Orleans had a great start to the game, shutting out the Rams second-ranked scoring offense for the first 20 minutes and intercepting a pass in opposing territory. The offense did score on their first three drives, but they left potentially eight points on the field by starting 0-2 in the red zone.
Poor Mid-Game Performance on Both Sides of the Ball
New Orleans slowly let their 13-0 start slip away, and Los Angeles was able to tie the game 20-20 with 5:03 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Saints had scored on just one of their previous six drives before they took a late 20-23 lead. On one second half drive, they actually lost seven yards before punting.
It didn’t help that Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram couldn’t find much room to run. The team finished with just 48 rushing yards, their lowest total since week one. There were issues in the passing game as well, as the Saints lack of depth at receiver proved costly.
Kamara was able to reel in 11 catches for 98 yards, but All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas caught just four catches for 38 yards after posting a career-high 211 receiving yards against Los Angeles in week nine. Ginn added three catches for 58 yards. The other Saints receivers gained just 59 yards on 12 targets.
On defense, the Saints appeared to catch a major break as Rams versatile running back Todd Gurley spent much of the game on the sideline. After dropping two key third down passes in the first quarter, Gurley saw just two carries and one target in the passing game.
Whether his limited playing time was due to his early mistakes, a lingering knee injury, or head coach Sean McVay‘s strategy, the Rams most dangerous weapon became a non-factor. Running back C.J Anderson wasn’t much of a factor either, as he gained 44 yards on 16 carries.
Despite the ineffective run game, Los Angeles still leaned heavily on play action and found success with it. This showed up most notably on a third quarter touchdown pass to Tyler Higbee, as Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone bit on a run-fake, and couldn’t catch up to the tight end. After a slow start, quarterback Jared Goff finished with 297 passing yards, including three gains of over 30 yards.
By the time New Orleans took over with the score tied at 20, the momentum had shifted entirely to Los Angeles.
Two Blown Chances to Close out Game After No-Call
This section comes with a disclaimer since the rest of the game could have gone entirely different had Robey-Coleman been flagged for interference. However, the Saints were still in a favorable position to win after a Lutz field goal put them up by three points.
Los Angeles took over with one time out and 1:41 left in the game. They quickly moved past midfield in four plays but faced a third and three at the Saints 49 yard-line. A mix-up in coverage allowed Rams receiver Robert Woods to get open for a catch out of a bunch set, moving Los Angeles into field goal range.
New Orleans was able to stop the Rams on third and seven a few plays later, forcing them to settle for a field goal after an errant Goff throw fell incomplete. The Saints had blown a chance to stop the Rams outside of field goal range, but at least they kept Los Angeles out of the end zone.
New Orleans had another chance to end the game after winning the coin toss in overtime. Three plays in, the Saints faced a second and 16 at their own 40-yard line. With Rams edge defender Dante Fowler closing in, Brees threw deep, but Fowler got a piece of his arm and the ball floated too high. Rams safety John Johnson out-fought Thomas downfield and intercepted the pass.
This play is another source of controversy. While there was mutual contact between Johnson and Thomas downfield, a defensive pass interference call seemed appropriate. Fowler also hit the face mask of Brees after the throw, which should have triggered an illegal hands to the face penalty.
With that said, it was a throw Brees shouldn’t have attempted in the first place. Fowler was closing in too quickly, and Brees should have taken the sack. Maybe he didn’t want to give the Rams another chance on offense after they’d scored on three of their final four drives in regulation. It was a rare risk by a quarterback who threw just five regular season interceptions.
New Orleans held Los Angeles to just one first down on the ensuing drive, but it wasn’t enough. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein ended the game with a 57-yard field goal.
The missed pass interference call on Robey-Coleman will loom large in the coming months. That’s what this game will be remembered for, and there will be added heat on NFL officials for another off-season. Still, this missed call wouldn’t have been so significant if New Orleans had played a full game.
Jumping out to 13-0 advantage over the league’s second-ranked scoring offense was huge, but the lead should have been bigger, and the Rams caught up as the Saints went idle on both sides of the ball for much of the contest. A chance to close out the game in the final minute of regulation and again in overtime still wasn’t enough.
Sunday demonstrated that one of the most complete teams in Saints history still has holes that need to be addressed in the off-season. Fortunately, those needs are fewer than most NFL teams, and the Saints have a young core outside of Brees, the majority of which are still under contract.
One more good off-season could propel New Orleans back to the Super Bowl on the 10th anniversary of their 2009 championship.
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