POSTED Mon. Dec 23, 2013

Forty-one seconds.

That is the amount of time that this game boiled down to. Only three total touchdowns were scored yesterday in Bank of America stadium. The Saints offense that torched the Panthers two weeks ago for 31 points scored one of them. The Panthers scored the other two. The first scoring drive was one play and nine seconds long. The second was five plays and thirty-two of the final fifty-five seconds of the game.

Another heart breaking, soul crushing last-minute comeback defeat on the road.

The numbers are weird. Outside of the forty-one seconds that Carolina produced touchdown drives, they were hammered by Rob Ryan’s defense. The Panthers had 10 first downs to the Saints 20. The Panthers ran 44 plays to the Saints 81. The Saints had 140 more total yards. If you take out the 43-yard DeAngelo Williams touchdown run, the Saints had over double the Panthers total yards. Most staggering perhaps is the time of possession, as the Saints had the ball for 38:48 and the Panthers merely 21:12. The winning team, the Panthers, converted zero third downs.

How do you lose this game if you’re the Saints? The two Brees interceptions and monsoon-like conditions didn’t hurt, but that’s not what people are going to be talking about. Panthers fans will probably just remember this as some kind of Christmas miracle, heaping messianic praise on Cam Newton when they should really be thanking the freakish Luke Kuechly. Saints fans will remember a game of bizarre play calls and the soft defense of the final minute.

The first strange call was the onside kick after the Saints first field goal, which effectively caught Carolina off guard and led to a short drive and another field goal. But losing teams don’t have the luxury of remembering the successful gambits. The one that will stick in the mind of Saints fans was the fake field goal. Usually, when you attempt a fake field goal, you don’t use most of the play clock to shift into your offensive formation. This gives the defense time to adjust.

That happened, but we effectively got Jimmy Graham into single coverage. Unfortunately, Luke McCown is not known for his accuracy, once almost chopping his brother’s finger off with an axe. The throw sailed long and wide and the Saints turned the ball over on downs, leading to a Panthers field goal.

I don’t think the special teams gimmicks were to blame for the loss. The field goal would have been at the outside of Graham’s range and the weather was turning horrible. There was crappier coaching afoot in Charlotte.

First, Sean Payton threw a challenge flag at a questionable Colston catch that was ruled incomplete on the field. It was a six-yard pass on a second down. There was very little to gain and a lot to lose in a highly contentious game. Second, we called three running plays in a row to try to burn the clock on the last drive. It was obvious that we were going to leave a minute on the clock if we failed to convert a first down, but Payton refused to give our best player a chance to close out the game for us.

This was disastrous in New England when we had nothing on the line. Yesterday, with EVERYTHING on the line, we did it again.

It was a perfect shitstorm. Morstead kicks a terrible 37-yard punt. Ryan calls a soft prevent zone that gives up a 37-yard pass. At this point, we might as well have gone for it on fourth down. Blitzing kept us in this game, and abandoning the blitz took us out of it. By the time we dial up another blitz it’s too late: Jenkins misses the hit and Cam Newton nails the coffin shut.

The Saints can be the number two, five or six seed in the playoffs, or not make it at all. It mostly hinges on whether we beat the Bucs, whether the Panthers beat the Falcons and whether the Cardinals beat the 49ers next week. Here are the best and worst case scenarios: a Saints win and Panthers loss gives us the number two seed; a Saints loss and Cardinals win takes us out of the playoffs.

Basically, if the 49ers beat the Cardinals, the Saints are in no matter what, but the Falcons are the key to a much-needed playoff game in the dome. If there was ever a time to cheer for the despicable 49ers and loathsome Falcons, it is this week.

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