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Monday, January 6, 2014

Getting the Monkey off of Their Backs

It is with great pleasure that the first Daily Hat Trick posting of 2014 is discussing the New Orleans Saints first, ever, road playoff win in Philadelphia over the Eagles on Saturday. Saints kicker Shayne Graham drilled a 30 yard field goal right through the middle of the uprights to give the Saints the 26-24 win and set them up for a rematch with the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks in Seattle next Saturday.


January 6, 1991 – 1990 NFC Wild Card Game, New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears:

Bears 16 Saints 6

In a game in which the Saints could muster absolutely no offensive threat, a defense loaded with Pro Bowlers and a future Hall of Famer kept the Saints within striking distance. In the fourth quarter, Robert Massey of the Saints appeared to block a field goal which initially was recovered and returned for a Saints touchdown to tie the score. Massey was penalized for lining up offsides, though replays showed the call was at best close but questionable and at worst dead wrong. Kicker Kevin Butler of the Bears would later tack on the three points and put the game out of reach of the frozen and inept Saints offense.

Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson (#57) had to bolt across the country to San Francisco before he could win a Super Bowl ring. 4

January 6, 2001 – 2000 NFC Divisional Playoff Game, New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings:

Vikings 34 Saints 16

The Saints would not play another playoff game on the road for another 10 years, to the day. Coming off of the euphoria of the franchise’s first, ever, playoff win the prior week hosting the St. Louis Rams in the Wild Card round, the Saints’ Cinderella carriage turned into a pumpkin quickly. Chris Carter and Randy Moss were unstoppable, combining for 241 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The game was all but over by halftime.

This was the view of Randy Moss branded into the memories of Saints defenders. 3
January 21, 2007 – 2006 NFC Championship Game, New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears:

Bears 39 Saints 14

Playing in their first, ever, conference championship game, the Who Dat Nation was riding higher than it ever did. In the third quarter, the Bless You Boys appeared to have a chance to deliver the ultimate post-holiday gift to their fans – a trip to the Super Bowl, less than 18 months removed from the wide-spread and total devastation of Hurricane Kartina.

After holding the Bears to red zone field goals three times in the first half, Saints running back Reggie Bush took a screen pass 88 yards for a touchdown to bring the Saints to within two points. With an opportunity to take the lead, Saints kicker Billy Cundiff missed a long field goal and the Saints’ wheels completely came off. In spite of Bears quarterback Rex Grossman’s performance being…well…gross, man…the Saints had absolutely no answer for Bears running back Thomas Jones, who finished with 123 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears ripped off 23 unanswered points en route to their first Super Bowl appearance in 21 years.

 Not enough...not ready for the big game.

January 8, 2011 – 2010 NFC Wild Card Game, New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks:

Seahawks 41 Saints 36

The Seattle Seahawks won an abysmal NFC West division with a 7-9 record with a Week 17 win over the St. Louis Rams. The Saints were the defending Super Bowl champions with an 11-5 record, two games back of the NFC South champion and top-seeded Atlanta Falcons.  The Seahawks were the object of ridicule and criticism all week. The Saints were 10 point favorites at kickoff, making the Seahawks the largest home underdog in NFL playoff history.

In spite of having the #4 defense in the NFL during the regular season, the Saints could not stop a runny nose, let alone the running of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who finished with 131 yards and a touchdown highlight for the ages. Still, Drew Brees and company were able to cut the Seahawks lead down to four points with several minutes remaining in the game. One stand by the defense, and the Saints would get the ball back and a chance to win the game. Then this happened, and the Saints allowed it to happen:


January 14, 2012 – 2011 NFC Divisional Playoff Game, New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers – “The Catch III”:

49ers 36 Saints 32

Known as “The Catch III” among 49ers followers, Saints fans could fittingly call this “The One That Got Away”. The 2011 Saints, in my opinion, were better than the 2009 team than won Super Bowl XLIV. The problem for the Who Dat Nation is that the level of competition in the NFC rose as well. In spite of a 13-3 regular season record, the NFC South champion Saints had to play in the Wild Card round as the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers finished 15-1 and the 49ers finished 13-3 and held the tiebreaker over the Saints based on conference record. The game was almost immediately described as one of the greatest games ever played by many in sports media. In spite of my personal disappointment, I agree.

In spite of turning the ball over five times and trailing by as many as 17 points, the Saints rallied to take the lead, 24-23, on a 44 yard Drew Brees pass to Darren Sproles in a game that would see the lead change hands four times – all of which happened in the final five minutes of the game. After a fast and furious drive down the field, capped by a legendary 28 yard touchdown run by (normally immobile) 49ers quarterback Alex Smith just before the two-minute warning, the Saints answered 30 seconds later with an equally legendary 66-yard catch and run by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham to retake the lead 32-29 after the two point conversion with less than two minutes remaining.

Great players rise to greatness when the need is greatest. Niners tight end Vernon Davis, who finished with 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns, torched Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins on a 44-yard bomb with 40 seconds remaining in the game. He delivered a second helping of “you got burned” on third down with a 14 yard game winning touchdown reception with 14 seconds remaining in the game.

Building on the historic catch of Dwight Clark from Hall of Famer Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC Championship Game that launched the 49ers nearly two-decades long dynasty in the 1980s and 1990s and Terrell Owens’ catch on a pass from Steve Young (also in the Hall of Fame) on the final play of the 1998 Wild Card Game at the end of that dynasty, Vernon Davis’ 14 yard catch on the pass from Alex Smith launched a new era of 49ers football.

There were a total of 105 passes thrown in this game, seven for touchdowns, totaling 761 yards. Four players – Davis, Graham, Sproles, and Saints wide receiver Marques Colston had over 100 receiving yards. Had the Saints held on to win, they would have hosted the NFC Championship Game in the Superdome, where they were 9-0 in the 2011 season. The run of, arguably, the greatest regular season Saints team to date was over.

January 10, 1982: The Catch; January 3, 1999: The Catch II; January 14, 2012: The Catch III 1

The only people more tired than Saints fans of hearing about the Saints futility on the road this season and in the playoffs throughout their history are the Saints themselves. After breaking through against the Eagles on Saturday night, the Saints were awarded a rematch with the Seattle Seahawks. The same Seahawks that embarrassed the Saints on Monday Night Football last month…the same Seahawks that, three years ago, were as unworthy as any team in NFL history to reach the playoffs and ended the Saints reign as defending Super Bowl champions with a backbreaker play that took away a piece of the manhood of every Saints defensive player that day, many of whom are still on the team.

While all of the players and coaches involved are professionals, this game has overtones that are deeply personal to the Saints. Personal gut-checks in sports offer motivation that often generates an even greater laser-like focus on practice and preparation during the week. This extra fire often doesn’t come without a measure of testicular fortitude like this one.

The Seahawks are justifiably favored in the game. They are playing at home. Their record in the last two seasons at home is daunting. The Saints have a rare opportunity at redemption by demonstrating why they play the games.  

Seahawks 34 Saints 7: No player's memory is that short. 2

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