By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
In the well-storied history of the bitter rivalry between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, there have been many wildly unforgettable games that been played by the two respective franchises against each other that in this modern era would be referred to by the term “Instant Classic”.
For long-time NFL / Pro Football fans, an “instant classic” refers to a game that eventually will be replayed either in its entirety or in “highlights” over and over on sports-related TV networks repeat for years to come; and long-time fans of the sport can tune into media entities such as the NFL Network or ESPN in the early hours of the next morning to be reminded of that same epic game that was once played (and hopefully won) by their favorite team.
A good example of an “instant classic” for Saints fans would be the team’s 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts back in Super Bowl XLIV nearly a decade ago.
Or at least that was the case, anyway — until yesterday.
In a game that saw the two team’s offenses combine for a 941 yards, a series-record 80 total points, 56 first downs and 5 touchdowns a piece for both starting quarterbacks, the Saints ended up on the winning side of a jaw-dropping 43-37 overtime victory; in what might have been the most memorable game of the entire series while gutting out a much-needed win over their trash-talking NFC South arch-rivals.
— NFL (@NFL) September 23, 2018
New Orleans actually seemed to have the slight upper hand for a majority of the contest on offense, as they ran 17 more plays the Falcons did while converting 7-out-of-14 on third down and had a decisive advantage in time of possession of nearly a whole 10 minutes (37:45 for the Saints to only 29:20 for Atlanta).
Additionally, the Saints offense also seemingly outperformed the Falcons in several key elements of the contest; but yet still were forced to rely on a big play by their special teams on a blocked punt by defensive end Alex Okafor to set up a short-field for a touchdown and keep the score within striking distance for a last-second come-back, just when it had appeared Atlanta was about to “put the game away” up by 6 points.
How did the Saints find themselves in such a predicament?
We all know the answer to that, which is that the Saints defense — and particularly the defensive secondary — has taken one and possibly several steps back so far this season, after last year’s remarkable improvement overall as a unit.
As of right this moment: the Saints likely have THE WORST PASS DEFENSE IN THE ENTIRE NFL.
Even though they still rank 30th overall out of 32 teams (ahead of #31 Tampa Bay and #32 Kansas City), you can’t help but consider them the worst; after watching the godawful performances of veteran CB’s P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley.
🚨 BALLER ALERT 🚨
CALVIN RIDLEY IS GOING OFF. pic.twitter.com/UQvg5f1n8M
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) September 23, 2018
Williams was straight-up EMBARRASSED, and yielded 7 receptions for 146 yards and 3 TD’s to dynamic Falcons rookie WR Calvin Ridley. He was replaced in the line-up eventually by Crawley; who didn’t fare all that much better and whom Williams had replaced as the starter following Crawley’s notable struggles back in the Week #1 loss to Tampa Bay in which he gave up similar numbers to Buccaneers WR DeSean Jackson (5 catches for 146 receiving yards and 2 TD’s).
Bottom line: the Saints pass defense looked even worse yesterday than they did when they were TORCHED by Tampa QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in Game 1 and appear to resemble the defense that was considered one of the League’s worst just a few short years ago, from the 2014 through the 2016 NFL seasons.
It will be a major concern going forward for the Saints organization, and with 13 games still left to be played, it could end up being what “makes or breaks” their entire 2018 season.
“We’ve got to get better as a whole,” said Okafor to reporters afterwards in the locker room. “We’ve got to get back to the film room, see what we can improve on and carry that over to the next week.”
“Look, I feel like we got some experience there and we’ll keep playing both of them,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said in his post-game press conference.
One can only hope that his decision in due time will see both players improve and get better over the course of the next several games.
But while the focus squarely will be on improving the defense over the course of the next few weeks and months ahead, the organization can breathe a sigh of relief this morning thanks to — who else ??? — the ageless wonder who is Saints 18th year veteran and future NFL Hall of Famer Drew Brees; who while nearing age 40 (on January 15th) still continues to defy all logic while shattering a handful of long-standing NFL records in the process.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 23, 2018
Fortunately for Brees and the Saints, that much-maligned and heavily-criticized defense did manage to make a key 3rd Down stop late in the 4th quarter, forcing a punt that gave New Orleans the ball with only 16 seconds left remaining to play in regulation.
And it ended up being THE difference in yesterday’s “instant classic”; since it gave Brees and his young weapons (specifically RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas) another chance to even further his legacy.
Yesterday, Brees was magnificent; completing 39 of 49 for 396 yards with 3 TD passes and no interceptions (he hasn’t thrown one yet). When you add on his two back-to-back TD runs in the 4th quarter and overtime, he scored or was responsible for touchdowns on the Saints’ last four possessions.
Drew Brees after three games:
80.6 completion %
121.85 QB rating
2 Rushing TDs
— AllSaintsConsidered.com (@AllSaintsBlog) September 23, 2018
Terron Armstead: “Drew is the greatest of all time. I’m not saying it because I play with him. How could you dispute it? How could you argue he’s not the greatest quarterback to ever live? What else does he have to do? It’s crazy.”
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) September 23, 2018
He also set the all-time NFL record yesterday for most pass completions in an NFL career; when his 17-yard completion to Thomas at the 7:52 mark of the 2nd quarter moved him ahead of former NFL Hall of Fame QB legend Brett Favre with 6,301 career pass completions to break the mark.
But he wasn’t alone, thanks to the help of the young men that I refer to as the “Cardiac Kids” in Kamara and Thomas.
#Saints big-3 today:
Drew Brees: 39/49, 397 yards, 5 total TDs, 0 INTs
Alvin Kamara: 15 receptions, 190 total yards
Michael Thomas: 10 receptions, 129 yards
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) September 23, 2018
“Cardiac Kids” is a term that’s been used on a number of occasions throughout past sports history by older sports writers like me, to describe a team comprised of mostly talented young players with a knack for pulling out wins during tense moments or situations — which New Orleans clearly did yesterday despite their struggles on the defensive side of the football.
Thomas continued yesterday on his torrid pace to begin the first 3 weeks of the season, as he finished the game against the Falcons with 10 receptions for 129 yards.
So far in 2018, Thomas has caught 38 receptions for 298 yards and three touchdowns on a total of 40 targets for a ridiculous “catch rate” of 95 %. At his current pace, Thomas would record nearly 200 receptions this year, which would completely SHATTER the record of 143 set by Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts back in 2002.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 23, 2018
Meanwhile, Kamara was sensational in his own right; as he rushed 16 times for 66 yards and caught 15 of 20 targets for 124 yards for a total of 190 yards from scrimmage. Kamara could’ve had an even bigger day, but his one-yard score / would-be touchdown was ruled just short of crossing the goal line.
Still, the 2nd-year running back thus far has a whopping 430 scrimmage yards through three games in the place of #1 RB Mark Ingram (who only has 1 game left to serve on his 4-game suspension imposed by the League before the season began) heading into next week’s road game in New York against the Giants.
Alvin Kamara rushed for 66 yards and caught 124 yards to set a new career-high with 190 yards from scrimmage – the most in a game by a Saints player since Pierre Thomas had 226 in 2007. #NOvsATL #GoSaints
— StatMuse (@statmuse) September 23, 2018
As long as Brees continues to remain healthy and has players like Thomas and Kamara at his disposal, this Saints team will remain a dangerous threat within the NFC and among the conference’s “elite” teams, in spite of their ongoing defensive struggles.
Like the old saying goes: “sometimes the best defense, is a great offense”.
And Brees and his ‘Cardiac Kids’ certainly qualify in that regard.
Brees and Payton are now in what currently is their 13th NFL season together; and undoubtedly are veterans of NFL “shootout” games such as the one from yesterday that would appear they’ll now have to face a few more times this year.
But so as Brees remains under center for the Saints, they will ALWAYS have a chance to win the game, no matter what the situation might be.
Nevertheless: the struggles on defense make it hard this morning for Saints fans to get TOO EXCITED about yesterday’s otherwise gratifying win over their bitter arch-rivals, until they (specifically defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) find a way to remedy the undesirable situation as it currently stands.
Let’s be completely (and bluntly) honest: the Saints WILL NOT make the NFL Playoffs and earn another shot at getting to the Super Bowl, if they continue to play pass defense this poorly.
Meaning that it will more than likely up to Brees and his “Cardiac Kids” within the Saints’ top-ranked offense, to win them games this year; and especially in tense moments or situations (just like yesterday), when the game often comes down to which team ends up possessing the football last.
As we saw for ourselves yesterday: in a game that seemed as if the Saints would lose in a very similar manner to other losses in the past that many older fans of the team have witnessed over the years, this Saints team “refused to lose”; and they deserve big-time for their resiliency for a 2nd consecutive week after pulling out a win over Cleveland the week before.
The Saints are (2-1) when they could very well be (0-3) — and as long as they have Brees and his ‘Cardiac Kids’ in every game, they will remain a Playoff threat to win it all in early February….
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his detailed story on the how the Saints and their fans are tackling the controversial NFL-National Anthem issue, featuring his interview with Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as a piece we released today on a controversial movie filmed in New Orleans!