Are the New Orleans Saints set up for a Super Bowl run after recent heartbreak?
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By James Simpson - @JS_Football
Last Updated: 28/11/19 6:18pm
The New Orleans Saints' past two seasons have ended in in heartbreaking fashion.
On January 14, 2018, they had a 24-23 lead over the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs with just 10 seconds left and their opponents backed up in their own half.
On January 20, 2019, they were tied with the Los Angeles Rams 20-20, at their opponent's 13-yard line, needing one first down to run out the clock and kick the game-winning field goal.
They lost both games.
Between the 'Minneapolis Miracle' and the 'NOLA No-Call', Saints players, coaches and fans have experienced more heartbreak than most teams do over decades.
This year, they will be back in the playoffs and in contention to win it all, but can they finally get over the hump for the first time in 10 years after Sean Payton and Drew Brees delivered the city's first Lombardi Trophy in the 2009 season?
"They blew the call"
After watching the Eagles lighting up the Vikings and going to win Super Bowl LII, and the Rams mustering up just three points in Super Bowl LIII, the Saints will have felt sick - "it should have been us".
When Case Keenum lined the Vikings up from their own 39-yard line with just 10 seconds left - down 23-24 - there appeared no way New Orleans would not be heading to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship game the week after.
But Stefon Diggs caught it, Marcus Williams missed it, pandemonium ensued. Diggs' 61-yard scamper made that game the first in NFL playoff history to end with a touchdown.
It was so unexpected nobody knew a conversion after the touchdown was mandatory. Saints players had left the field, and only eight Vikings took the field as Keenum led a 'Skol' clap chant and knelt for the team's two-point 'attempt'.
Payton was regretful he had not used up more clock on the Saints' final possession. Williams had to make peace with his error over the summer. The team used the play as motivation.
It worked, as the team came out and won 10 of their first 11 games last season, finished 13-3 as the NFC's top seed, and both tied the most wins in franchise history and clinched home field for the first time since their Super Bowl season.
They held off an Eagles' comeback attempt in the divisional round of the playoffs, and looked in good shape to reach Super Bowl LIII after advancing deep into Rams' territory with less than two minutes left in the championship game.
But on third-and-10, knowing a first down would all but send them to Atlanta, the Saints were subjected to what is known as the worst missed call in NFL history.
Brees sent the ball in the direction of receiver Tommylee Lewis, and he was clattered by Nickell Robey-Coleman before the ball arrived.
No pass interference. No helmet-to-helmet hit. No call, and no first down.
Although the Saints took a 23-20 lead, there was enough time for Los Angeles to race back down the field and tie it at 23-23, sending the game to overtime.
In OT, Brees was intercepted, Greg Zuerlein hit a game-winning field goal from 57 yards, and the Saints were out - again.
Garrett in the hot seat at Dallas
The pressure is mounting for Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett after thinly-veiled criticism from owner and general manager Jerry Jones on Sunday.
Robey-Coleman later said: "Hell yeah, that was a PI. I did my part. Referee made the call. We respect it". The NFL admitted the referees made a mistake. Some Saints fans and ticket holders even filed a lawsuit against the league, saying the game should be replayed.
Payton, angered at the time, said after the game: "Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call...
"It's a game changing call. That's where it's at."
Ultimately, the NFL changed the rules based on that play, allowing coaches to challenge both offensive and defensive pass interference beginning this season. The Saints will never feel justice has been fully served.
In the mix again in strong NFC
Once again, the Saints are in a prime position to be contenders and play deep into January and potentially February. At 9-2, they are only bested by the San Francisco 49ers in a conference that is extremely strong at the top.
Current NFC seedings
|1||San Francisco 49ers||10-1|
|2||New Orleans Saints||9-2|
|3||Green Bay Packers||8-3|
Despite not having Brees for five games this season, their offense still ranks 12th in yards per game (368.9) and ninth in points per game (24.7).
Defensively, they are 10th in yards allowed (321.3) and 13th in points allowed (20.9). This is a team that can win in all phases, and one that will likely need to if they want to go all the way.
Five teams in the conference have at least eight wins, and all pose different threats. But the Saints have the build of a team that can win in the air, on the ground or in a defensive battle.
Just how far can they go?
Clinching playoffs is first goal
No team in the NFL has clinched their postseason berth yet, but New Orleans can be the first on Thursday night. With a win over the 3-8 Atlanta Falcons, they will have wrapped up the NFC South for the third straight season.
But a win is not a given against their fierce rivals. The Falcons handed New Orleans a shocking 26-9 loss at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome just three weeks ago as Brees threw 45 times but only managed 287 yards and no scores.
Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray were held to just 24 and 12 yards, respectively, as the Saints scored their fewest points since Week Two, when Brees exited in the first quarter.
Regardless, New Orleans are still the clear favourites.
In February 2009, the Saints competed in and won their first Super Bowl - in Miami. 10 years later, the Saints are once again on the road to a Super Bowl in Miami. Will they be there?