Saints rue uncharacteristic play after early playoff exit

Minnesota 26, New Orleans 20
Posted at 10:54 PM, Jan 05, 2020

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Narrowly missing out on an NFC playoff bye came back to haunt the Saints right away.

A series of missed opportunities led to yet another excruciating exit from the postseason — this time in a 26-20 overtime loss at home to sixth-seeded Minnesota. The Vikings won three fewer games than the Saints in the regular season but outplayed them most of the way Sunday before winning on tight end Kyle Rudolph’s 4-yard touchdown reception on the first series of the extra session.

The silence in the Saints locker room reflected the reality of a third consecutive playoff loss on the last play. In 2017, the Vikings scored on Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown as time ran out in Minneapolis. Last year, the Los Angeles Rams won the NFC championship game on a field goal in overtime in the Superdome.

“You invest so much into it and have invested so much into it so you understand that these opportunities are few,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “So, yeah, it’s disappointing. If you’re not holding up the trophy at the end of the year, it’s disappointing.”

The Saints sent the game to overtime on Wil Lutz’s 49-yard kick with 2 seconds left in regulation, but were kicking themselves for all of their uncharacteristic failures before and after the field goal.

Brees, who helped the Saints set an NFL record for fewest turnovers with eight in the regular season, had two costly ones. Safety Anthony Harris intercepted his deep pass for Ted Ginn Jr. into double coverage late in the second quarter, setting up Dalvin Cook’s 5-yard touchdown run as the Vikings went ahead for the first time, 13-10.

“We were trying to catch them off guard,” Brees said. “We felt like Teddy was making his way over the top and could make a nice play.”

With the Saints trailing 20-17, defensive end Danielle Hunter stripped Brees on a sack with 4:18 left after Taysom Hill’s 28-yard run to the Vikings 20.

“The fumble’s really frustrating because there was miscommunication as to what we were doing,” Brees said. “The ball should have been out of my hands and all of a sudden that wasn’t the route that was run, so now I’m just trying to throw the ball into the dirt to avoid a sack, right? And right as my hand’s going back he just kind of gets a piece of my arm and that ball comes out. ... That never should have happened.”

The Vikings converted 10 of 18 third downs, a higher percentage than anyone the Saints played in the regular season, when they limited opponents to a 34.8 percent success rate.

Cook rushed for 84 yards in the first half, more than the Saints had allowed for a full game to any other running back. Although he finished with 94, his early success helped keep Brees and the Saints offense off the field as Minnesota controlled the ball for nearly 19 of the first 30 minutes.

“We knew they were going to try to run the stretch and test the perimeter,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We didn’t do enough to stop that.”

Lutz missed a field goal at the end of the first half — just his fifth miss in 39 kicks this season.

New Orleans also had two crucial penalties. A false start nullified Hill’s conversion of a fake punt after the Saints fell behind 20-10 in the third quarter. An illegal shift on a Brees intentional spike cost the Saints 5 yards and a 10-second runoff in the final minute, turning what would have been a second down at the Minnesota 26 with 21 seconds left into a second down at the 31 with 11 seconds remaining.

One play later, New Orleans settled for a tying field goal.

“If we get a play that all of a sudden gets us within striking distance, you call the timeout,” Brees said. “Now maybe you take two shots at the end zone or something like that. So that was costly.”

The Saints were only the third team to go 13-3 and not get a bye since the NFL went to its current divisions in 2002. It happened to them after the 2011 season, when they beat Detroit in the wild-card round, and again this year.

Hill said dropping the playoff opener after tying the franchise’s best regular-season record is “as difficult as you can imagine” emotionally.

“We had a great season and it hurts to go out like this.”