Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Saints 2010 Review/2011 Preview

Is it all Garrett Hartley’s fault?

I know, it doesn’t seem fair to pin everything on the jersey of a single player when so many members of the New Orleans Saints team contributed to an embarrassment of an ending. Maybe it’s not, but there is one fact that is indisputable: had the kicker connected on his field goal attempt against Atlanta in the third game of the season, things would have played out very differently for the Black and Gold.

For example, the Atlanta Falcons secured the NFC South title and first seed in the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record. The Saints had to settle for a wild card slot with their 11-5 record.

However had Hartley made what should have been an easy field goal, the NFC South, the first seed in the playoffs, homefield advantage and first round bye would have been decided in the Georgia Dome the Monday after Christmas. With both teams finishing the season 12-4, the Saints would have possessed the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Falcons.

Beyond having the NFC playoffs once again run through the Superdome and avoiding a flight across the country to play the Seahawks in the loudest stadium in the NFL, there would have been one other considerable benefit for winning the division in Week 16: the Saints could have rested their starters in Week 17.

The game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was far more costly than just adding another notch in the Saints’ loss column as the Black and Gold lost three key players (free safety Malcolm Jenkins, tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Chris Ivory) before halftime.

With homefield, a healthier team and a first round bye, it’s likely the playoffs would have played out far differently for the Saints. I’m not saying they would have won the Super Bowl; just that they would have gotten closer to it.

To Hartley’s credit he played well towards the end of the season and the loss to the Falcons in week could have been made up had the Saints defeated the underdog Arizona Cardinals on the road and the Cleveland Browns at home. Those losses were team efforts.

The sour note the Saints ended their drive for a “Repeat Dat” will light a fire under the entire organization, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players.

If “finishing strong” was the mantra of the 2009 team, then “starting angry” might just be mentality of the 2011 Saints.

The New Orleans Saints team that traveled to Seattle for the wild card playoff game reminded me of the Black and Gold squad that went to Minneapolis ten years and two days ago.

While that team was coached by Jim Haslett and led on the field by quarterback Aaron Brooks, individuals vastly different from their opposite numbers, there was a big similarity between the teams: both were severely hampered by injuries to their ground game.

The 2000 Saints lost theirs when running back Ricky Williams went down in the Carolina Panthers game in week 11. Williams was the Saints’ entire ground offense and didn’t return to the field until the divisional (second) round against the Minnesota Vikings- and then Mike Ditka’s most infamous draft pick carried the ball only 6 times for a grand whopping 14 yards. The Saints only had 69 rushing yards in the 34-16 defeat.

Looking back, it was an omen of things to come when bruiser Lynell Hamilton went down in practice before the Saints’ first pre-season game. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Saints had lost five running backs, not including Reggie Bush who spent most of the season healing a broken leg suffered in week two. During the playoff game against the Seahawks, Bush and Julius Jones went down.

Though Seahawks fans might be stoked at the thought of their 7-9 team eliminating the defending world champions from the post-season, in actuality they beat a team that was being held together with duct-tape and bubble gum.

While the 2010 season disappointed most of the Black and Gold faithful (I wasn’t- I picked Atlanta to win the division and the Saints to not go far as a wild card) by not achieving the much hoped for “Two Dat”, the year was hardly a total failure.

They beat the Minnesota Vikings to start the season off on the right foot, back when defeating them meant something, and managed to achieve a tough win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger in a nationally televised Halloween night game that also set a Guinness World Record for a costume party (giving New Orleans positive publicity).

Both of those games were won thanks to stellar play by the defense, which found a new way to beat opponents without forcing turnovers.

Finally, the Saints did make it to the post-season and had the second-best record in the NFC; unfortunately the team with the best record was in the same division, not that was particularly new for the Saints after being trapped with the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the NFC West for three decades.

2010 also marked the first time since the Jim Mora era that the Saints made the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Remember when just making it to post-season was a big deal?

On the other hand, the Saints did not acquit themselves well in other contests against lesser teams, even in victory.

Could a Super Bowl hangover legitimately be attributed to the flat performances?

Did the Saints suffer, as a friend of mine from Seattle speculated back in July, from the Rocky III mentality of getting blinded by the klieg lights and pummeled by the league’s lesser “Clubber Langs”?

Also was Drew Brees playing with a hurt knee, as fullback Heath Evans speculated to the Boston Globe? Head coach Sean Payton dismissed that his star suffered a significant injury, though the way Brees has thrown the ball in 2010 indicates something was off as his passes didn’t look as crisp.

I would imagine the rest of the story will make its way out to the public in the coming weeks.

Not to be a pessimist, but 2010 probably marked the Saints’ best opportunity to win a second Lombardi Trophy.

With the core of the team still together and in certain instances upgraded, the 2010 Saints on paper looked to have been superior to the roster that won the Super Bowl. The Saints dropped defensive end Charles Grant and picked up free agents Jimmy Wilkerson and Alex Brown and attempted to upgrade the linebacker corps by letting Scott Fujita chase riches in Cleveland and adding Clint Ingram.

The former worked out better than the latter.

Brown and Wilkerson were hits though Ingram, who didn’t play a single snap, never fully recovered from an injury suffered from the previous season. Further complicating matters was that Jonathan Cassillas, who was pegged to start as the weakside linebacker, was placed on injured reserve after getting hurt in the team’s final pre-season game.

The Saints benefited from a number of key players being retained on the roster as restricted free agents due to the uncapped year as the front office was able to hold on to the likes of Pierre Thomas, Lance Moore, Anthony Hargrove and Roman Harper via relatively modest one-year contracts.

In the event there isn’t a lockout, the cleat will be on the other foot come free-agency as the RFAs will become UFAs free to market their talents to the highest bidder.

And speaking of money, comes the biggest question mark: will the Saints pay Reggie?

I say this is the biggest not necessarily because of Bush’s value to the team but the amount of money he has commanded and will be owed if the Saints organization honors his contract as is.

Last season I went on a limb and predicted Bush would be gone; I underestimated the front office’s willingness to pay number Twenty-Five a truckload of money.

In 2011, I feel a lot more confident projecting that one of two things will happen: a new deal will be worked out between the Saints and Bush or Reggie will be wearing a different jersey.

Assuming a new cap is put in with a new labor agreement, Bush’s fifth year under his contract becomes not only extremely expensive but also comes with a severe opportunity cost, consuming salary space that’s going to be needed to better compensate those players the Saints would like to keep and to compete for the services of other free agents.

Bush knows that there’s not a team in the NFL willing to shell out $11,000,000+ in 2011, so he’ll either be inking a new deal with the Saints or will be cut. The celebrithete claims he would like to stay in New Orleans and is happy with the team and head coach Sean Payton obviously is a big fan. We’ll see what kind of paycut Mickey Loomis is going to offer and what Bush will accept.

And then there’s defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has been rumored to be a head coach candidate in Denver. Williams wasn’t in New Orleans a year before speculation began about his departure for somewhere else in large part due to the changes he brought to the Saints defense. With so many vacancies out there, the defense’s poor performance in Seattle is unlikely to hinder Williams’s ability to land a head coach gig…if he wants to leave.

With so many contracts coming up, next season’s New Orleans Saints will most likely look very different from the squad that took the fieldturf in the past two seasons.

A few years ago a Buccaneers fan told me that one of the worst things to happen to then Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden was winning the Super Bowl. I was floored by such logic.

How could winning the Super Bowl EVER be a bad thing? (Unless of course you’re a Cleveland Browns fans watching the Baltimore Ravens win one in 2001).

The Buc booster said that it raised expectations to a point that Gruden’s teams did not meet.

I thought about what I had heard but could not wrap my mind around it. Though the Saints had some outstanding squads take the field over the years and were only a game away in January 2007, the very thought of the Saints winning the Super Bowl seemed hard to conceive; that local fans would come to despise the head coach that delivered to the Crescent City a Lombardi Trophy even less so.
Though Payton has made play calls that have infuriated the fans on occasions (damned Devery double reverses) and I will nit-pick on decisions that simply make no sense (short kicks in the Seattle game and letting Hartley handle kickoffs over punter Tommy Morstead), I’ll always be grateful for the 2009 season.


The 2010 season could have always been better, though anything short of a run that equals that of the 1972 Miami Dolphins won’t have the magic or meaning of the 2009 season.

Time and defeat will eventually erode the goodwill and love Payton and Brees have been showered by the community in the heady days after the Super Bowl win. If kids can angrily declare they hate their parents in a fit of range then inebriated Saints fans can do (have done) the same about the victors of Super Bowl XLIV.

As I write this in early 2010, I wonder when in the future I’ll refer back to this column when Payton inevitably digs himself a hole not even his vivid imagination can find a way out of or when Brees starts to play like Dave Wilson towards the end of his career.

“Payton’s nuts and has to go”, “Brees needs to realize his time is up” and “We’re over paying him” will be the catcalls, perhaps prefaced with a smattering of kind words for past services rendered.

With distance, some might even dope themselves into believing that a Saints Super Bowl win was as “inevitable” as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It’s not a question of if but when. Granted it won’t be anytime soon, but as I noted in a previous write-up, even Tom Landry received walking papers.

A few months ago, Aaron Brooks made a visit to Metairie for wide receiver Joe Horn’s induction in the Saints Hall of Fame. Brooks, who was reviled by practically all Saints fans by the time the 2005 season spiraled to a close, didn’t look comfortable and acting a bit like he was trying to hide from people while attending the function. As I walked into the ballroom for the luncheon, I shook hands with Brooks and thanked him for helping win the Saints’ first ever playoff game in 2000.

I wasn’t just being polite. I meant it.

Only the Super Bowl win was greater in my mind than the December 30, 2000 contest against the Saint Louis Rams. And Brooks was the star of the show throwing four touchdowns on that day.

But like the rest of the Saints fans in Saint Bernard, I was doing a happy dance inside a gutted house with a blue tarp on the roof when word came that his time with the team had ended in 2005. Fame and success are both fleeting.

Maybe the team basked too long in the shadow of Super Bowl XLIV.

That’s understandable.

Saints fans will be basking in that triumph for decades to come.

Rather than slamming the Saints for the disappointing 2010 season, I’ll close this column by saying “thanks again for 2009”.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wild Card Review: Dat's Over

Another loss to feathered fiends.

The defending world champion New Orleans Saints concluded their drive for a "Two Dat" losing to the NFL's first division winner with a losing regular season record, despite the visiting Black and Gold being a heavy favorite.

The game in a lot of ways was a microcosm of the entire season: injuries, a battered running game and poor play by the offensive line. The only thing that was different was an atrocious performance by the Saints defense, which generally bailed out the team's struggling offense during the season and was expected to be the difference maker.

Seattle's 41 points represented the most the Saints' defense surrendered all season and the most the Seahawks' 23rd ranked offense scored all season long.

The loss marks for the Saints their fourth straight conference road playoff game, having never won one.

Give the Seahawks and their "12th Man" (the rowdy loud louts in the stands) credit for retrofitting what had been up until Seattle won had been an ignominious entry into the post-season.

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck once again had a big day against the Saints' defense, but on this occasion in a successful effort. Hasselbeck completed 22 of 35 passing attempts for 272 yards, including several key indefensible passes perfectly in front of his receivers, for four touchdowns and a pick.

And just when it looked like the Saints were rallying, running back Marshawn Lynch earned his place in not only this week's highlight reel but perhaps an ESPY for his “back and tackle” breaking 67-yard touchdown run that extinguished the Saints' hopes of retaking the lead.

I suspect some of those "broken tackles" were rooted in the defense’s attempts to knock the ball out Lynch's hands once he had picked up the first down, though tackling wasn't just a problem on Lynch's big run but throughout the game.

Strong safety Roman Harper had what might have been the worst game of his career, being burned by the Seattle passing game for big plays, especially a possum play by Seattle’s tight end. Cornerback Jabari Greer joined Harper on having an uncharacteristically awful day. As for 2010 first round draft Patrick Robinson, Saturday was more the rule than the exception as the young cornerback continued to struggle to make a substantial contribution to the team and justify the substantial investment by the Saints’ front office thus far.

Drew Brees's "bodyguards" failed to protect the number Nine and didn't buy him the time he needed to keep the offense, which was once against riding disproportionately on his shoulders, on the field. The targets of his passes didn’t help Brees either, as there were a few dropped balls, including what would have been a certain touchdown catch by running back Reggie Bush.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wild Card Preview: Will the NFC South’s Second Best Beat the NFC Worst’s Best?

A year ago, the Black and Gold faithful were blue going into the divisional playoff game because the team lost their last three regular season games.

In 2011, the Saints themselves are black and blue going into the post-season’s first round after three starters were hurt in the regular season finale.

Unlike last season when they stormed into the second round of the playoffs as the conference’s top team with juggernaut offense and a ball-hawk secondary, the New Orleans Saints hobble into Seattle in 2011 as a competitive squad with a severely imbalanced offense and a defense that has shut down opponents through resilience instead of making highlight reel takeaways.

In terms of personnel, this season’s squad is practically the exact same team that won the Super Bowl but has played, in part due to necessity, a totally different style.

On paper, the Saints are a vastly superior team to the Seattle Seahawks, who have been derisively treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of playoff teams that somehow bumbled into a homefield game.

The Saints’ offense is 6th (372.5) in the NFL in total yards and 11th (24) in points scored per game. The Seahawks’ offense isn’t in the same league, 28th (297.8) in total yards and 23rd (19.4) in points scored per game.

The gulf between the teams is worse on the defensive side of the ball.

The New Orleans defense, arguably the strongpoint of the team in the 2010 season, ranks 4th (306.2) in yards allowed and 7th (19.2) points allowed per game. In contrast, Seattle’s “d” gets an “f”: 27th (368.6) in yards allowed and 25th (25.4) in points allowed.

The Saints should be able to do to the Seahawks in this playoff game what they did to the Arizona Cardinals in last season’s.

But then again a far less talented Cardinals squad than the one that played in the Superdome last January embarrassed the Saints in the 2010 regular season. The game doesn’t always play out the way it looks on paper.

The good news for the Saints is that many of their missing hands will be back. In his post-practice press conference, Saints head coach Sean Payton shared with the media that wide receiver Marques Colston and tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas were full. Though the Saints’ receiving corps is well-stocked, the tough to guard Colston has been quarterback Drew Brees’s favorite target since 2006.

Also with third-round draft pick Jimmy Graham not practicing after being injured against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, the return of the recuperating first and second string tight ends is a good sign and provides Brees with a plethora of options to spread the pigskin around.

The bad news for the Saints is that starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who injured a knee in the first quarter against Tampa Bay, did not practice, nor did linebacker Danny Clark, who’s having hamstring issues.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Saints has been at running back. The Saints have not established much of a ground game this season, mostly due to injuries that have resulted in five running backs being knocked out for the season, including the two most recent additions to the injured reserve list- Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas.

To supplement the depleted backfield, the Saints have re-signed DeShawn Wynn, who had been on the team earlier as a special teams player, and inked a running back with the last name Bell from the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad…but not the one most fans had hoped.

Joique Bell, a Division II star, has bounced around the NFL in 2010 with the Saints becoming his fourth employer after originally being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Bills.

Though he has been on the active roster of the Eagles and Indianapolis Colts, Bell did not carry the ball once in the regular season. The Wayne State product played in four pre-season games, rushing for 152 yards on 27 carries (5.6 yards average) with two touchdowns. He did not fumble a single time.

Though behind running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones on the depth chart, it’s likely that Bell will see the field in some capacity, especially since Payton is wary about “overplaying” number twenty-five.

With the Saints running game largely grounded and the Seahawks’ defensive being particularly vulnerable to pass (27th in the league, giving up 249.6 yards per game), fans should expect an aerial circus from Brees & Co.

And with the limelight on him as the lead running back in a nationally televised game against the man who coached him at the institution of higher learning the NCAA forbids me from associating with him, Bush could put on the same show he pulled off against the Cardinals in the divisional playoff game.

Ideally, the Saints should put the Seahawks away quickly in order for Bell to get in some live-fire. I don’t know who you are Mr. Bell, but you’re about to get the audition of a lifetime on Saturday afternoon.

The earlier humiliation in the desert is proof that an upset can happen. Qwest Field is one of the toughest venues in the league because it’s one of the loudest, despite being an open-air stadium.

And while it’s unlikely even the most fervent blue and gray painted fan has booked a flight to north Texas in February, the Seahawks are playing for respect and to give some dignity to the 2010 NFC West Champions banner that will hang from the rafters of their stadium. Beating the defending World Champions when it matters most would certainly take some of the stench away from Seattle’s “dis-STINK-tion” as a 7-9 playoff team.

The Seattle offense is unimpressive so much so that their running game is actually worse than the Saints. Head coach Pete Carroll announced on Thursday that Matt Hasselbeck, who sat out the season finale against the Saint Louis Rams, will start on Saturday in lieu of Charlie Whitehurst, who guided the team to the division championship.

Hasselbeck has not been magical, completing about 60% of his passes while throwing five more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12). However, Hassebeck did have a good game statistically in a losing effort against the Saints in November, completing 32 of 44 passes for 366 yards and a touchdown.

The Seahawks’ defense is just as unlikely to pick off a quarterback as the Saints’ secondary (which ranks LAST!) and their front seven are about average in sacks but since the Saints’ offense is almost certainly going to be very pass heavy, the prospects for interceptions increase.

A pick-six or two by the Seahawks would fire up the crowd producing an environment conducive for mistakes by the Saints offensive line.

Another threat to the Saints is kick returner Leon Washington; if all possible, punter Tommy Morstead needs to boom as many of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

Turnovers and good field position courtesy of Washington are the foundation of a Seahawks upset while the Saints need only minimize mistakes and hope that the offensive line buys Brees enough time to spread the ball around to pick up the win.

In a match-up between two teams that both over-rely on passing, the Saints have a major advantage.

While a Two-Dat is very much in doubt; a “one-and-done” is equally unlikely.

What Says Vegas?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan chalks the Saints as a 10-point favorite. When the Saints last played the Seahawks, New Orleans won 34-19…IN the Superdome. Since then, Seattle has lost by double-digits to Kansas City, San Francisco, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

Normally I get a bit squeamish about dishing so many slices of cheese, especially on the road, but I think the Seahawks are going to play every bit like team that won its division with a losing record.
Give the points.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Does a 7-9 Team Deserve to Host a Playoff Game?

Gridiron fans angrily speculated about the prospect of a 7-9 team not only making the playoffs but also hosting a post-season game. And then it happened when the Seattle Seahawks, benefiting from tie-breakers, won the NFC West with a losing record.

For Saints fans, this bit of sanctimonious outrage is new; it’s not for Indianapolis Colts fans, whose 12-4 team in 2008 had to travel to southern California to play the 8-8 San Diego Chargers. The Colts were even further annoyed when the obviously inferior Chargers had the temerity to ruin Peyton Manning’s season by winning in overtime 23-17.

The debate about whether Seattle belongs in the post-season or hosting a playoff game begs the question: do divisions matter? I say yes.

The NFL divisions have been shaped by a combination of tradition, geography and expedience. After all, the Cincinnati Bengals have to be placed somewhere.

Longstanding rivalries have defined some of the divisions, thus defying the divisional names.

As a grade schooler who could read a map, I thought it was odd that the New Orleans Saints were in the NFC West while the Dallas Cowboys were in the NFC East. Yet who would let geography (which is also one of Americans’ worst subjects anyway) diminish the rivalry between the Redskins and the Cowboys?

Currently, the Indianapolis (nee Baltimore) Colts are in the AFC South while the Baltimore Ravens (nee Cleveland Browns) are in the AFC North despite the fact that Maryland provides the southern border of the Mason-Dixon line and Indiana is very much a northern state. In fact there’s a large monument in downtown Indianapolis putting one and all on notice to which side they favored in the War Between the States.

It should also be noted that Cincinnati is well south of Indianapolis but resides in the AFC North.

That said, I would prefer locationally fudged division names to having divisions haughtily dubbed “legends” and “leaders”. Only a fool would do something like that.

So if divisions do matter, then should winning the division be worth something? Absolutely. And the prize is hosting at least one playoff game.

The divisions nurture rivalries by guaranteeing two games against the other teams in the division. Don’t tell me that the intensity isn’t higher for the Chicago Bears when they play the Green Bay Packers as opposed to when the Monsters of the Midway face the Arizona Cardinals.

The wild card playoff slots serve as a counter-balance to disparity of divisional strength (which is common with college football’s conferences) as it is entirely possible that the best two teams in the AFC might very well occupy the same division.

One proposal would seed teams in each conference by record instead of division standing, though I believe this would add an unneeded degree of complexity while also undermining the status of winning the divisions, which would consequently take a bite out of the league’s merchandising sales.

How many Saints fans own a t-shirt and hat from each the team’s division, conference and championship milestones? I would wager plenty since I had trouble finding an NFC South t-shirt after the Super Bowl.

Another alternative to the status quo is the pre-1969 Major League Baseball system where there were no divisions and the teams with the best record in each league simply met in the World Series. But that’s not as much fun nor is it nearly as profitable.

More has been made out of Seattle’s playoff appearance than necessary. The fact that this the first time an NFL team with a losing record won its only proves that the system works far more often than not.

So why the outrage?

Furthermore, Seattle accomplished a mighty feat that the defending Super Bowl Champions could not: they beat the awful Arizona Cardinals. Twice.

Rather than grumbling about how the Black and Gold has to make the long journey to Seattle, Saints fans should be thrilled to be playing such a weak team. I’d much prefer the Saints take an extended road trip to the Pacific Northwest than a shorter run to the City of Brotherly Shove.

If anything that was a big incentive for the Saints to play their best against Atlanta in the regular season’s penultimate game. The division wasn’t so much on the line realistically as the opportunity to face the weakest division winner. The Saints achieved their goal and will reap their reward on Saturday afternoon while the Green Bay Packers visit the House That Booed Santa Claus.

And if the Saints do drop the game to the Seahawks, then it would be as much of a reflection on our post-season worthiness as the home team’s.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Week Seventeen Review: Saints Walk the Plank into Postseason

In the end, the game was officially meaningless.

The Atlanta Falcons sent John Fox out feet first as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach as the Dirty Birds won the NFC South on their own while the Green Bay Packers stifled the visiting Chicago Bears en route to securing the bottom wild card spot (sixth seed) in the NFC playoffs.

Had the Saints won on Sunday, it would not have affected their seeding, though the game will most certainly affect their capacity to compete in the post-season.

Starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins, running back Chris Ivory and tight end Jimmy Graham all left the game with injuries.

None of these players are easily replaceable. Jenkins took over the role of starter from the aging future Pro Football Hall of Famer Darren Sharper and has been referred to by the coaching staff as the best defensive player on the team. Though his path to the gridiron came at the expense of severe injuries to the four running backs penciled ahead of him in training camp, Ivory’s hard running style can’t be replicated by anyone else on the roster.

And the 2010 third round draft selection likewise found himself advanced quickly through the ranks due to injuries to first and second slotted players, but with his good hands and towering height, Graham has emerged as a favorite target for quarterback Drew Brees as of late. The Saints are running out of players for that position.

The stats from this game really don’t matter much. Well Brees’s matter to the record books as number nine continues to move the chains of his statistical legacy with the Saints franchise. What matters most is the injury report coming out of the regular season finale that had as much value as an exhibition game.

Like the inexplicable loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the first half of the season, the Saints seemed to be in control but then got sloppy as the mistakes compounded themselves and narrowed the team’s ability to slip out with a win.

The game changed on a Julius Jones fumble at the Buccaneer four yard line that was recovered by the Tampa Bay defense. Twelve plays, including a tipped ball that was caught by wide receiver Maurice Stovall for 38 yards, combined with a bone headed offsides penalty on cornerback Tracy Porter that converted a Buccaneer field goal into a first down, resulted in a touchdown pass from quarterback Josh Freeman to wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe.

Sure the officiating was awful as certain penalties were committed against the Saints that were not called, but that’s no excuse for the defending world champions to have dropped a game in their own stadium to a team loaded with rookies.

Brees was picked off for the 22nd time this season, the most in his professional career and was sacked three times, for a total of 25 in the 2010 regular season, the most while playing for the Saints. Brees also fumbled the ball on one hit.

It’s not a coincidence that the Saints lost every game this season when Brees was sacked three times.

The Saints’ offensive line, which received an award last season, isn’t earning their considerable pay in 2010. They’re not opening holes for running backs nor are they giving Brees the protection he needs to get the ball down the field.

In contrast the defense performed well, sacking Freeman three times and largely containing running back LeGarrette Blount, limiting the hurdling rhinoceros to 66 yards on the ground, Blount’s lowest rushing game since week 12 in Baltimore. It should be noted that Blount broke the 1000 rushing yard mark on Sunday despite having seen either limited or no playing time in the first five games of the season.

Even the Buccaneers’ two best receivers, wide-out Mike Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow didn’t have that great of a day.

Once again, errors and subpar play by the offense decided the Saints’ fate.

Though Payton should have benched his starters no later than halftime, the injuries to Jenkins, Ivory and Graham all happened at the earlier portion of the game.

Whether any of the Saints’ key starters should have taken the field at all since a Carolina upset of Atlanta was highly unlikely is another matter altogether.

Going into the playoffs, Marques Colston’s knee isn’t the only thing that needs to be cleaned up.

Welcome to the Field Mr. Arrington

Wide receiver Adrian Arrington, who had been on and off the Saints roster and practice squad since being drafted in the seventh round in 2008, got his first playing time in a regular season contest and made the most of it. The lanky Michigan standout led the Saints in catches (7) and receiving yards (79) including a long of 17 yards.

It was revealed prior to the game that Arrington had received active roster offers from other teams though the wide receiver declined to leave the team’s practice squad, perhaps an indication that the coaching staff has big plans for him in 2011.

Back-up quarterback Chase Daniel threw his first NFL passes, completing two of three for 16 yards.

The Long Road to the Two Dat

With the Seattle Seahawks defeating the Saint Louis Rams on Sunday night at Qwest Field, the 7-9 NFC West champions will host the Saints in the first round of NFL playoffs. It was announced before the NFC West showdown that the match-up between the NFC’s 4th and 5th seeded teams would be on Saturday afternoon, 3:30 PM local time. Bear in mind for those thinking about flying to the game that’s 1:30 PM Seattle time.

Tickets to the game are available on ticketmaster.com and other secondary ticket sites.

The Franchise Player’s All-Time Franchise Stats

Brees had his worst game of the 2010 season but still grew his all-time franchise records a bit. Brees now has 2,020 completions, 22,918 passing yards and 155 touchdown passes in a Black and Gold uniform.