New Orleans Saints also will lament missed opportunities in NFC Championship Game

Photo-Saints-Rams-NFC-Champ-Pass-Interference-012019
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis (11) works for a coach against Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) during the second half the NFL football NFC championship game Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The Rams won 26-23. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The non-call overshadowed almost everything.

There was no way it couldn’t, given that it helped prevent the New Orleans Saints from winning the NFC Championship Game and advancing to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.

But the Saints, whose season ended in the 26-23, overtime loss to the Rams on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, also admit that there was meat left on the bone.

There were plays unmade, offensively and defensively, that might have helped them be in better position to advance. Those, too, will be remembered with a bit of wistfulness.

OFFENSE: The Saints were 2 for 5 in the red zone, and the three field goals were chip shots, after the Saints reached the 19-, 10- and 13-yard lines. A touchdown on one, or two, of those drives might have put New Orleans in position to overcome the missed defensive pass interference. Credit the Rams for tightening defensively once the Saints reached the red zone, but the Saints needed to convert on those occasions. New Orleans totaled 290 yards, and only 48 (on 21 attempts) came in the run game. But, too, Alvin Kamara’s 11 receptions for 96 yards were an extension of the run game, so there was production from that aspect. The Rams did a much better job of containing receiver Michael Thomas (four catches for 36 yards on Sunday; 12 catches for 211 yards and a touchdown against Los Angeles in the regular-season game), and they pressured Drew Brees (26 for 40 for 249 yards and two touchdowns, with two sacks). Ultimately, the pressure paid off in an overtime interception, which gave the Rams possession and led to the game-winning, 57-yard field goal. The offensive line struggled with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (no surprise there, he was substantially more disruptive than his numbers suggest).

DEFENSE: Defensive end Cam Jordan said it best: The defense could have stopped the Rams before they got into field goal range at the end of regulation and in overtime, or could have forced a turnover on either of those possessions. It didn’t get the stops, and that was costly. The Saints allowed 378 yards and were more than solid on third down (the Rams converted 6 of 16). The allowed just 77 rushing yards and got the Rams imbalanced offensively. But New Orleans’ defense wasn’t able to protect leads of 13-0 and 20-10, and it couldn’t apply enough heat to Rams quarterback Jared Goff (25 of 40 for 297 yards and a touchdown, with an interception) down the stretch. New Orleans did manage to lock down running back Todd Gurley (four carries for 10 yards and a touchdown), but the tradeoff was that receiver Brandin Cooks was able to find enough room for 107 yards on seven catches.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Probably the cleanest area for the Saints on Sunday, in terms of production. Wil Lutz made all three field-goal attempts, Thomas Morstead averaged 42.8 yards per punt and the cover team didn’t allow a yard on the Rams’ lone punt return. In fact, on that play, Justin Hardee made the tackle and caused a holding penalty. And on the flip side, Kamara returned four kickoffs for a 29.8-yard average, perhaps the most productive kickoff return game this season. All in all, there wasn’t much in terms of negative play.

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