The referees (yes, again).
The New Orleans Saints overcame all these obstacles to pull out that surprisingly rare gem: their first win in their season opener since 2013. It was enough to make those 73,000 souls in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome want to call in sick (OK, hungover) if they hadn’t been swooning from the stress of this Monday Night mayhem that ended in a scarcely believable 30-28 victory Saints victory.
It was anything but the big easy for the team from The Big Easy. The team that the folks at SportsBetting.ag had as a 5-1 favorite to win the NFC (barring another officiating debacle) and make it back to Miami for the Super Bowl. For all the hype and hopes for this 2019 Saints team, it is easy to forget what a heavy lift winning any NFL game is. Especially against a team like the Texans, who overcame an 0-3 start in 2018 to surge to an 11-2 finish and win the AFC South while the Saints were winning the NFC South.
New Orleans was staring down an 0-3 start if it didn’t win. This season could have been over before it began with back-to-back tough road games next against the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks before a game back home against the Dallas Cowboys.
“We know the stretch of games we have coming up,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “Kind of a gauntlet here the first quarter of the season. We have to make improvements very quickly.”
The Saints didn’t need the frightful, troubling disappointment that a season-opening loss would have been. But trouble is what they had most of Monday night.
Often trouble of their own doing.
Brees, whose every move and decision is given extra microscopic analysis now that he’s north of 40, made one of the worst blunders you’ll ever see him commit when he got picked off in the red zone by aptly named Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus. Houston took that gift and went 94 yards for the game’s first touchdown, a 21-yard keeper by quarterback DeShaun Watson with 14:13 left in the second quarter.
Houston’s rushing attack vexed the Saints all night. New Orleans only allowed 80.2 yards per game rushing in 2018, but the Texans had 85 yards by halftime and a whopping 180 for the game. Yards that made it much harder for the Saints to push Houston off the field when the defense needed stops to try to allow the offense back in it.
On top of everything, it seemed the referees were bent on breaking the Who Dats once again.
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The sequel to the Great NFC Championship Game Blown Call was another botch job that may have cost the Saints points at the end of the first half: a 10-second runoff coming after the refs mismarked what was eventually ruled a 17-yard Brees to Michael Thomas pass. The Saints didn’t have enough time to nudge Wil Lutz closer, and his 56-yard field goal try was wide left as the half ended with New Orleans down 14-3.
NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron told pool reporter Larry Holder of The Athletic that the runoff should have been applied at the end of the play rather than when play was stopped for the review, at 41 seconds left instead of 26 seconds. It wasn’t as much egg on the NFL’s face mask after the no interference call on the Rams back in January, but it was bad enough.
“That can't happen,” Brees said. “That's a game-changer. We end up having to kick a 56-yarder. Fifteen more seconds, are you kidding me? We would have gotten closer."
Riveron and his refs had to be secretly stoked that Lutz and the Saints got them off the hook. After Houston scored in two rapid plays to take a 28-27 lead with 37 seconds left — too rapid for its own good as it turned out — Brees maneuvered the Saints from their 25 to their 40. That left Lutz to try a 58-yard field goal, longer than he’d ever made in his NFL life.
Like the Rams’ overtime field goal by Greg Zuerlein that sank the Saints in the NFC title game, this would have been good from even longer.
“That’s got to be a top-one moment for me,” Lutz said memorably.
“I was pretty confident in that kick.”
So was Brees when he heard the impact.
“When you heard that ball go off his foot it was a thundering kick,” he said. “We all knew it was going to go through.”
From the Fleur-de-lis … it’s good!
It’s a feel-good moment now, like LSU’s track meet win Saturday at Texas. But like the Tigers, the Saints have some defensive issues to address, namely how their end of half/game defense continues to be so matador-like.
At the same time, a win like this can be ultimately uplifting, worth more than the mere 1-0 in the NFL standings.
It’s up to the Saints, and maybe the refs, to see that they don’t have to win on such long odds again.
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