Despite the loss, the Saints became the NFC South division champions and clinched the number four seed in the playoffs thanks to the Atlanta Falcons defeat of the Carolina Panthers. However, they would have moved into the third seed if they had won due to a loss by the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
Questions surround the Saints heading into the postseason. Facing a strong NFC playoff bracket, they’ve now lost three of their last six following an incredible eight-game win streak. Injuries have decimated the Saints defensive line and linebacking groups, and their offense has struggled to sustain drives in recent weeks.
New Orleans needs to return to their mid-season form if they are to survive their third matchup with the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, and win on the road the next week.
Saints Offense Stumbles
The Saints offense seemed poised for a highly productive game after going 64 yards in six plays, and scoring a touchdown on their first possession. Quarterback Drew Brees completed a 43-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Thomas, and a few plays later running back Alvin Kamara went untouched on a seven-yard scoring run. However, New Orleans went into halftime with only 125 offensive yards while converting on 25% of their third down attempts.
The Saints attempted to resurrect one of their drives on a fake field goal attempt late in the second quarter, but kicker Wil Lutz failed to reach the first down marker. Three plays later, New Orleans had good field position and 1:50 left in the half after an interception by linebacker Craig Robertson, but they went three and out after gaining just one yard.
The Saints offense continued to miss opportunities in the second half. Their first drive of the third quarter ended with a punt, and a few minutes later New Orleans had to settle for a field goal following another takeaway by their defense. The Saints finally added another touchdown with 7:07 remaining in the game, but failed to extend a 24-23 lead on their next possession, setting up a Buccaneers game-winning drive.
Kamara Strengthens Offensive Rookie of the Year Case
Week after week, Kamara has shown how dangerous he is as a runner and receiver, earning a 2017 Pro Bowl selection in the process. Against Tampa Bay, Kamara averaged 8.5 yards per touch as he ran for 44 yards and a touchdown, and caught six passes for 84 yards.
Kamara also had his best kick return of the season, giving opponents yet another skill to gameplan against. Following a 14-play, 74 yard opening touchdown drive by Tampa Bay, Kamara returned the ensuing kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown. The return was the longest in Saints team history, and their first kick return for a touchdown since 2009.
Kamara finished his impressive rookie season with 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns while averaging 7.7 yards per touch. Kamara and teammate Mark Ingram became the first running back duo in NFL history to gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. Although he seems like an ideal candidate for offensive rookie of the year, Kamara is up against Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who finished with 1,782 total yards and 11 touchdowns on the season.
Saints Defense Doesn’t Finish the Job
The Saints defense allowed Tampa Bay to score on their opening drive, but then allowed just nine more points until late in the fourth quarter. In that 54 minute span, they intercepted three passes, and sacked Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston twice. Despite this strong effort, the Saints defense couldn’t defend a 24-23 lead with 1:58 remaining in the game.
On that final Buccaneers possession, New Orleans had stopped Tampa Bay on third down at their own five-yard line. However, the Buccaneers successfully converted on fourth down, and scored a touchdown seven plays later, leaving just nine seconds on the clock. This was the second time this season where the Saints lost a game despite intercepting three passes, adding to their week 14 loss to the Falcons.
Even though the Saints struggled at times on both sides of the ball, the most pivotal play of the game came on special teams. Tommylee Lewis fumbled on a punt return near his own goal line, and Tampa Bay recovered it for a touchdown. This play gave the Buccaneers a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Saints need to tighten up in all three phases of the game as they enter the postseason, but this type of play can easily end a team’s Superbowl dreams.
View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Week 17 New Orleans Saints Takeaways