Monday, December 27, 2010

Week Sixteen Review: World Champions, Reaffirmed

The folks in Atlanta had to keep those NFC South Champion t-shirts and caps in the boxes for at least another week as the New Orleans Saints upset the Atlanta Falcons in their home nest on Monday Night Football, 17-14.

Though the Saints still need a gridiron miracle from the Carolina Panthers in addition to beating the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday in order to win the division, the victory in the Georgia Dome was important.

First and foremost, the win sends the Saints into post-season for the second year in the row. The Saints haven’t appeared in the post-season in consecutive years since the Jim Mora era (1990-1991-1992).

Secondly the Saints will fare no worse than finishing as the fifth seed in the NFC, which means the Black and Gold will face the winner of the Seattle Seahawks-Saint Louis Rams NFC West (worst) showdown next Sunday. And while there have been no “automatic” wins for the Saints this season (remember the Cardinals), it goes without saying that the team would rather face whatever team that emerges from the weakest division in the NFL.

Third, there’s always the remote possibility of the Panthers winning next Sunday and the Saints potentially having homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

But perhaps the most notable benefit of the Saints victory on Monday night was that it was a reaffirmation for the defending Super Bowl champs as they proved they are as good as the conference’s best team by record.

And they achieved the win by digging themselves out of the hole that was dug through errors and flukes.

While quarterback Drew Brees completed 71% of his passes for 302 yards and a touchdown, number Nine once again had to carry a disproportionate amount of the offense. Brees was picked off twice, with the first returned for a touchdown. Brees however made a good defensive play after his second interception, quickly tackling defensive end John Abraham, saving big return yards. The Falcons ended up having to punt after that turnover.

Running back Pierre Thomas also had a big game, getting yards on the ground late in the game and helping ice the victory for the Saints late in the fourth quarter. Thomas racked up 63 rushing yards plus a touchdown on 19 carries for an average of 3.3 yards. Thomas accounted for practically all of the team’s rushing yards on the day.

The big stars of the night were the Saints defense, who tackled well, forced punts and snagged two loose balls, including a key fumble from Atlanta running back Michael Turner’s hands caused by defensive end Jeff Charleston and retrieved by linebacker Marvin Mitchell on the Saints one yard line. Turner had not fumbled a single time in the 2010 season until then.

The Saints defense largely stifled the Atlanta offense. Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan barely completed a majority of his passes, Turner was held to a mere 48 yards and most remarkably when considering how he tore the Saints up earlier this season, tight end Tony Gonzalez was limited to a pair of catches for 12 yards.

Wide receiver Roddy White, who is making a big to supplant Cincinnati’s Chad Ochocinco as the league’s leading Tweet-Twit, proved more prolific at running his mouth leading up to the game than making plays on Monday night. The NFL’s leading receiver in yards had a touchdown but caught only three passes for a mere 43 yards.

Though Ryan was sacked only once (by defensive end Will Smith), the Saints defense successfully contained one of the NFL’s top scoring offenses.

Finally, accolades should also go out to special teams. Kicker Garrett Hartley booted a 52 yard field goal, punter Thomas Morstead gave the Saints’ defense good field position thanks to some good punt bounces and two touchbacks on kickoffs and the kick/punt coverage was solid.

Black and D’oh Moments

Brees went to the well one too many times while under pressure. After making an awkward toss to Thomas, who managed to bring the ball back to the line of scrimmage, the Saints quarterback made a bad toss that was grabbed by defensive end Chauncey Davis and brought back to the house.

And then there were the flags, eight for almost the distance of the field (92 yards).

Cornerback Leigh Torrence didn’t help his team’s cause with an unnecessary roughness penalty for ten yards on a punt return.

Tackle Jermon Bushrod was saved from becoming the resident goat thanks to the victory. Between playing doormat to the Atlanta pass rush and penalties, including a false start that negated a Brees touchdown pass, Bushrod didn’t play well and remains the weakest link on a Saints offensive line that is not playing to the same high level of last season.

Moving the Chains and His Record

Brees further advanced his franchise records for pass completions, yards and touchdowns on Monday night. Brees’s new Saints all-time records stand at: 1,998 completions, 22,722 passing yards and 154 touchdowns.

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