The feeling is familiar, so Craig Robertson expects a familiar response.
The New Orleans Saints linebacker said the heartbreak of Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game closely resembles the angst that accompanied the Saints’ loss to Minnesota in their divisional playoff game the previous season.
The bounce-back from the Minnesota loss was that the Saints won the NFC South Division title for the second consecutive season, earned the No. 1 seed for the playoffs and advanced a game further in the postseason, to the NFC Championship Game.
“We’ve done this before,” Robertson said. “We know how to bounce back. That’s one thing that I will say: Just watching the heartbreak from last year, coming into this year, our guys walked in here Day 1 with a whole different mind-set. I can guarantee it’s going to be like that even more.”
Cornerback P.J. Williams seconded the sentiment.
“I know everybody’s going to come back the same way (as last year),” Williams said. “We’re coming, definitely looking to be a Super Bowl team. We know we’ve got the team to do it, we’ve got the players that buy into the things the coaches are saying. So I feel like it’s going to be all good coming back.”
But Robertson, Williams and their teammates also understand that a healing process must be undertaken.
The Saints (14-4) were a non-call away from advancing to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3. A third-down pass from Drew Brees, intended for Tommylee Lewis, fell harmlessly to the turf when Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman interfered with Lewis before the pass could reach him.
The NFL confirmed to Saints Coach Sean Payton immediately after the game that Robey-Coleman was guilty of two infractions: pass interference and a helmet-to-helmet strike.
With the non-call, the Saints kicked a 31-yard field goal with 1:41 left to take a 23-20 lead; the penalty would have awarded New Orleans a first down and given it the opportunity to run down the clock and kick a chip-shot field goal with less than 20 seconds remaining.
“It’s tough,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “It’s devastating, really, for this team, for the city – just everybody behind us. The crowd was crazy. It was a great game, a great football game for both teams. A lot of plays made, a lot of mistakes made, just a great game.
“And then just to have such a non-call be such a deciding factor – we feel like we kick the field goal to go ahead with minimal time left and we would have been on our way to Atlanta in a couple of weeks. It’s devastating.”
“It’s rough, because we just knew we were going to the Super Bowl,” Williams said. “We felt like this is our year, we put ourselves in a great position to be able to do it. So it’s definitely going to be tough with the season being over. I’m sure it’ll hit us a little bit more in the next couple of days.”
The healing process soon will move to the forefront, though. Players said they won’t be consumed by the negative emotions associated with what happened, knowing that they have a strong core of talent and that the missed call wasn’t the sole reason for Sunday’s loss.
“It’s going to be difficult, for most of us, for the rest of our lives,” Robertson said. “It’s a play that changed memories for a lot of people, changed memories for a lot of families, changed a lot of things.
“Everyone wants to bring up the play, but we had some plays on defense where we just weren’t perfect. And those are plays that we’ll think about correcting during the offseason, just so if we’re ever in that situation again, we’ll make it to where this situation doesn’t come up.”
Said Williams: “There’s always things you can differently. You can’t just put it all on the refs or anything like that. We could have definitely done things to make it different, like giving up a catch – we gave up a few catches later in that game that we should have contested or been closer on, but we weren’t. There’s always little things that we could have done better.”
Williams said the team will employ a cornerback’s approach to getting past the disappointment.
“You’ve got to be able to move on from stuff like this, you’ve got to have a short memory because you don’t want it to affect your life or affect your career,” he said. “So I feel like the main thing you’ve got to really just think about and know that you’ve got to move on from things like this. Because it’s over. You can’t just dwell on it and let it affect you in a negative way. I feel like you’ve got to pretty much try to take all the positives from it and move on.”
That’s the expectation, in the near future. In the present, the Saints understand how close they were to advancing to the Super Bowl.
“That’s the hard part about the NFL,” Armstead said. “We’ve got a Super Bowl team, and neither team (this year or last year) is going to the Super Bowl. That’s just the hard part about the NFL. Any game, it only takes one, especially in that playoffs, sudden death. It only takes one bad game or one interception or one missed call, and you’re home. That’s the hard part.
“To go back and pick up the pieces and go do it again, it’s an even tougher challenge. But we’ve got the team, we’ve got the group, we’ve got the organization, the head coach to do it, for sure. We’ve just got to put it together.”