Sean Payton went viral with a quote after the game that echoed the sentiments of the fanbase he has given more than a decade of his life to.
The New Orleans head coach said:
We’ll probably never get over it.
He’s got that right.
This wasn’t an elimination like what the Colts had where they wildly overachieved on the year, or like the Ravens had where they just didn’t have enough in the tank and were barely beaten by a team that was a little bit better.
Unbelievably, it was worse than last season’s excruciating last-second elimination against the Vikings on Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown reception.
This one’s going to sting for a long time to come on the Bayou.
Not only did they miss a great opportunity to get to a Super Bowl, but to get to this Super Bowl. A Super Bowl being played in Atlanta, the home of their half-century-old rivals. Winning a Super Bowl anywhere is special, but it would’ve meant a little more for the Saints to do it in the new billion-dollar home of their biggest enemy.
They would have spent all week using Atlanta’s facilities, and had the chance to use Atlanta’s locker room to celebrate the ultimate triumph. They had this Super Bowl earmarked since the moment it was announced.
They went all in to get to the Atlanta Super Bowl. They traded their first-round pick for this year to Green Bay to select Marcus Davenport. They shipped their third-round pick to the Jets for backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who will be a free agent in March. Finally, they traded their fourth rounder to the Giants for cornerback Eli Apple.
The Saints will have one selection in the first 160 picks of the 2019 NFL Draft. That was the price for going all in to win in 2018.
For a while, it looked like a good investment. They got the dream season they were hoping for when they took the risk. Drew Brees turned the clock back a decade and found MVP form early in the season as the Saints kept rolling. They got some huge breaks, from Zane Gonzalez missing a game-tying field goal as time expired to give New Orleans their first win of the year against Cleveland, to Justin Tucker missing his first career PAT with 10 seconds remaining in a 24-23 Saints win over Baltimore.
They went 13-3, won the top seed in the NFC, and had a path to Atlanta that would see them stay in the Superdome all the way through. Sean Payton and Brees were undefeated together in home playoff games entering this January at a 5-0 clip. They even beat Minnesota in the same building they were eliminated in last season to exorcise some of those demons. The greatest revenge tour ever was on, and it looked like nobody would stop it.
Cody Parkey’s blocked field goal eliminated the Bears, but a side effect of it was it meant the Saints would have the benefit of facing Philadelphia backup Nick Foles instead of a Dallas Cowboys team who beat them in the regular season. Foles threw two interceptions and Philadelphia’s offense failed to score any points in the last three quarters as the Saints advanced to the NFC Championship Game.
New Orleans grabbed a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game against a quarterback in his first career road playoff game who looked like a deer in headlights.
This was the perfect year, right down to the luck of having the Super Bowl in the perfect location.
Until it wasn’t.
And perhaps most upsetting for New Orleans, it was the strength of their team that crumbled when they needed it most. The Rams deserve a ton of credit for how well they played on defense, but the Saints went punt, punt, touchdown, punt, punt, field goal, interception on their final seven possessions excluding the end-of-half-kneel-downs.
Their offense carried them all season, and went ice cold when they desperately needed it to get them over the finish line to Atlanta.
Even on the road to building their 13-0 lead, the offense had a bad miss. They got the ball at the Los Angeles 16-yard line following a Jared Goff interception in the first quarter, already up 3-0. With a chance to go up 10-0, they went three-and-out and had to settle for a field goal.
In the second half, a three-and-out set up the first game-tying field goal to make it 20-20, and a failure to gain a single yard from first-and-10 at the Los Angeles 13 allowed the Rams to get another game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime.
Even with their own shortcomings in regulation, they got the biggest break of all. They won the overtime coin toss. One possession with a chance to advance to the Super Bowl if they found the end zone.
Brees threw a lame duck with pressure in his face, and was picked off by John Johnson III. As it was being thrown, the question had to be asked about how many more times Brees will get to throw a pass of that importance this deep into January.
The 40-year-old signal caller will be entering his 19th season in the league in 2019, and next season will be the last one on his current contract. You’re only as good as your quarterback in the NFL, and the Saints know that better than any other franchise.
The Saints won one playoff game in the 39 years before they got Brees, and have won eight in the 13 since he came over from the Chargers, including a Super Bowl. He is without a doubt the most important player in the history of the franchise, but time is running out.
The situation reeked of the 2009 NFC Championship Game, where a 40-year old Brett Favre threw an interception in the final minute to cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl, and then never made it back to the postseason.
I’m not saying the Saints won’t get back to the playoffs in the Brees era, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons of that nature when you see an opportunity like this go down the drain.
New Orleans had a 13-point lead in a building they hadn’t lost a playoff game in since 1992. On the line was a trip to the Super Bowl in their dream destination, a chance to send their most important player ever out with a ring as he enters the twilight of his career, an opportunity to erase the stench of last season’s last-second loss in the playoffs, and make trading three of their top four 2019 draft picks a worthwhile investment.
They couldn’t do it.
Nobody would be surprised if the Saints got back into Super Bowl contention in the future. They’ve built a great roster and even if his career is winding down, they still have a future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback.
But it’s almost impossible to imagine them getting a more perfect opportunity than the one they just threw away.
And like Sean Payton said, that’s something they’ll never get over.