Maybe, “seasoned” isn’t the right word to ascribe to the New Orleans Saints when it comes to playoff experience.
Many key contributors won’t be making their fifth, seventh or 10th appearance in a postseason game Sunday when the Saints (13-3) host Philadelphia (10-7) in an NFC Divisional playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But New Orleans, the No. 1 seed, does have some crucial seasoning, much of it courtesy of a two-game postseason appearance last year, when players like guard Andrus Peat, receiver Michael Thomas, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and running back Alvin Kamara made their playoff debuts.
And when it comes to the playoffs, every little bit helps.
“I think it’s important,” Coach Sean Payton said. “I think it’s something that, when you look at the teams in the tournament – certainly, the team we’re playing has that experience, winning a Super Bowl last year – (experience) doesn’t preclude a team from having success and playing well, but I think it can help.”
It can give a team a better understanding of what it takes to prepare for, and succeed in, the league’s one-and-done phase of the season.
Partially, that factored into the Saints entering the season as one of the favorites to navigate the NFC and advance to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
“I think it’s a little different in the sense in that everyone is truly expecting us to go out and beat everybody, go win a Super Bowl,” said Rankins, whose eight sacks this season were second on the team, and surpassed the six combined sacks he totaled in his first two seasons. He also had 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits.
“Whereas last year, our last playoff game, people were kind of a tossup about it, whether it was us or Minnesota. For us this year, everybody is expecting greatness, everybody is expecting us to go out and do great things. But for us, we just need to go out and play the style of football that we know how to play, and we’ll be fine.”
The Saints tied the Rams for the best record in the league, but earned the No. 1 seed by beating the Rams in their head-to-head matchup. Many of the aforementioned players were critical to the success.
Possibly, Peat is the Saints’ most versatile offensive lineman, having played left guard, left tackle and right tackle – in the same game. Thomas, a first-team All-Pro, set franchise single-season records for receptions (125) and receiving yards (1,405), and had nine receiving touchdowns.
Lattimore had two interceptions, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 12 passes defensed. Ramczyk, a second-team All-Pro, started every game and has developed into one of the NFL’s best in his second season. Williams had two interceptions, three passes defensed, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
And Kamara led the team in rushing (883 yards on 194 carries), was second in receiving (709 yards on 81 catches), tied a Saints single-season record with 18 touchdowns, and set the franchise single-season record with 14 rushing touchdowns.
“I think you just get better with experience," running back Mark Ingram said of his now more-experienced teammates. “You get getter with success, you get better with failures. You kind of learn from it, you grow from it and I think all those guys have benefited from that this year.
“Our guys are ready to go. We’re focused on just making sure we’re the best we can be, as healthy as we can be. Make sure we’re mentally, physically and emotionally ready to go out there Sunday and play our best game.”
Left tackle Terron Armstead said there isn’t much of a substitute for experience.
“The NFL is like – it’s rookie, and veteran,” Armstead said. “That’s it. There’s no sophomore year, junior year. You’re either a rookie or a veteran. All those guys are veterans now and they’ve got to approach the game as such. We’re counting on them and they’re counting on us, the older guys.”
And all of them are being counted on to help the newest Saints who lack playoff exposure, like rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport.
Davenport said he’s is taking a familiar approach to unfamiliar territory, but understands that there’s a difference.
“It’s a new game,” he said. “Basically, (Philadelphia) is a new team. I think as the season goes on, everybody changes. So we’ll just have to see what happens.
“I guess the best way to describe (playoff preparation) is just the focus is different. I am still coming with the same kind of preparation, but my focus has to be sharper.
“I’m trying to play my game, be able to go out there and play my best.”