Saints Begin Quest for Third Straight NFC South Crown After Controversial "NOLA No Call"
The memory of Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman committing a defensive pass interference penalty against Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis during the NFC championship game still haunts the nightmares of New Orleans Saints players and fans alike.
Tied with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Saints were thirteen yards away from scoring a touchdown and almost-assuredly punching a ticket to the franchise's second Super Bowl.
Alas, a Super Bowl LIII matchup with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots was not in the cards. Instead, the city of New Orleans celebrated the Boycott Bowl, spurning the Patriots-Rams matchup for second lines through the French Quarter streets and replays of Super Bowl XLIV - the Saints' 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Despite consecutive devastating playoff losses, the 2018 Saints achieved one of the franchise's most memorable seasons. Last year's squad posted the best record (13-3) since the 2011 campaign and the first conference championship game appearance since the 2009 Super Bowl run.
Although the Saints' championship window seems to be on the verge of closing with quarterback Drew Brees entering his 19th NFL season, New Orleans' talented roster is primed to three-peat as NFC South champions. And with a little postseason fortune, maybe the Saints will make it back to Miami for Super Bowl LIV - the site of the franchise's lone Super Bowl victory ten
Brees. Kamara. Thomas. Combining experience, savvy, athleticism, and heart, New Orleans' offense revolves around this trio of talented stars.
Running back Alvin Kamara enters his third season as a dark horse MVP candidate after compiling 18 touchdowns and nearly 1,600 yards from scrimmage in his sophomore NFL season. After the departure of longtime Saints running back Mark Ingram to free agency, Kamara is joined in the backfield by five-year veteran Latavius Murray. Murray rushed for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns combined the past two seasons for the Minnesota Vikings.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas continued his torrid pace into the franchise and NFL record books in his third season in New Orleans. As the anchor of the Saints receiving corps, Thomas has caught the most passes among any player in NFL history through his first three seasons. Outside of veterans Ted Ginn and newly acquired Rishard Matthews, the rest of the Saints' youthful receiving corps has shown flashes of excellence (Tre'Quan Smith) but has failed to consistently produce.
Although the Saints lost tight end Benjamin Watson, New Orleans signed 11-year veteran Jared Cook. The former Oakland Raider posted career highs last season with 68 receptions, 896 yards, and six touchdowns and should acclimate nicely into the Saints' offense.
On the offensive line, two concerns loom large for a unit that was one of the league's best in 2018 - can left tackle Terron Armstead stay healthy an entire season, and who will replace Pro Bowl center Max Unger? Former Viking Nick Easton and rookie Erik McCoy out of Texas A&M will battle for the pivotal position.
With protection for Brees and plenty of weapons at his disposal, the Saints offense should pick up right where it left off last season.
Since Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have almost always fielded a prolific offense. Yet the franchise's most successful campaigns were when the team's defense contributed in a meaningful way. Over the past two seasons, the Saints defense has blossomed into one of the most formidable units in the league by combining a suffocating rush defense with a ball-hawking secondary, eager to force turnovers.
Talent abounds throughout the defensive roster: from the defensive stud bookends of Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport to the stout linebacking corps led by Demario Davis to the defensive back treasure trove of Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams,
Eli Apple and Vonn Bell.
However, New Orleans will likely miss star defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins for part of the season because of an Achilles injury suffered during the playoffs.
But this isn't the first Achilles injury the Saints have had to overcome (see Alex Okafor last season), and this resilient bunch should find a way to continue to build on two years of past success.
Kicker Wil Lutz improved upon a solid 2017 campaign by connecting on 28-of-30 field goals and making all but one of his 53 PATs last season. Meanwhile, longtime punter Thomas Morstead is back to pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory when called upon after booting a career low 43 punts last season (a good thing - it means the Saints score a lot).
Veteran return man Marcus Sherels joins the Saints after eight years with the Vikings. Sherels should bolster New Orleans' return game, scoring five punt returns for touchdowns during his time in Minnesota.
The Saints' window of opportunity feels like it's now or never for this incarnation of the franchise. Brees isn't getting any younger, and lots of the young talent on both sides of the ball has blossomed into bonafide stars and starters.
This team has been knocking on the door of another Super Bowl appearance the past two seasons, and they will certainly be in the mix again come playoff time, despite facing one of the tougher schedules
After two straight disappointing playoff exits, the Saints have the personnel, motivation, and history to carpe diem and reclaim the Lombardi Trophy for New Orleans.
New Orleans: 12-4, NFC South
Champions, Super Bowl LIV
Photo by Mike Trummel