Saints vs. 49ers, 2011 playoffs

It’s been about 5 months since Alex Smith and Vernon Davis ripped the NFC championship game out of the Saints hands. I’m now finally able to write about it.

First off, the game was amazing. Even though my Saints lost, it was an epic football game. Football doesn’t get more entertaining than this (unless it’s the Saints beating the Vikings in the NFC championship or the Saints beating the Colts in the Super Bowl. Those are the height of football entertainment).

The Saints open the game by marching downfield. They get to the 2-yard line when Donte Whitner blows up Pierre Thomas. While not an illegal hit, it probably should be. If the NFL is interested in preventing head injuries, why would they want ANY helmet-to-helmet hits to be legal? At any rate, it’s a good, solid football play, and it caused a turnover.

The Saints get into a huge first-quarter hole (17-0), and spend the rest of the game working their way out of it. Until the 4th quarter when they finally take the lead with 4 minutes left in the game. This is the point at which the game got nutty, the lead would change hands 3 more times before the end.

Maybe defense really does win championships. The 49ers defense played well, but didn’t exactly stop the Saints (32 points, 471 yards, hello!). It was a lack of clutch defense by the Saints that allowed the 49ers to win. First they let the 49ers drive 80 yards for a touchdown in less than 2 minutes, including a 27-yard touchdown run by Alex Smith(!), and then …

Anybody watching saw the Saints win the game with about a minute and a half left. I mean, the game was over. Done. Finished. Brees had hit Jimmy Graham for a monster touchdown, which, in any other game would have been the final score. It should have killed the 49ers hopes and dreams.

There was no indication the 49ers offense would be able to score quickly enough to win this game. Their season had been characterized by great defense and field goals. A field goal would tie it, so maybe they could shoot for that, but I’m telling you, this game was over. O-V-E-R, over. Except that it wasn’t.

With 40 seconds left, the 49ers have the ball on their own 34, and the television broadcast shows the kicker warming up on the sidelines. Maybe they’ll find a way to get into field goal range. When all of a sudden, Smith hits Davis with a bullet and Davis runs it to the Saints 15 yard line. And the nightmare is in full effect. Echoes of Marshawn Lynch in the 2010 playoffs. Memories of familiar defensive late-game collapses. Can the Saints defense just find a way, some way, to hold them to a field goal? Pleeeaassse?


Three plays later, Smith hits Davis again for one of the most excruciating touchdowns I’ve ever seen. Crushing. And only 9 seconds left, not enough time for Brees to the win game (again).

Watching it still sends my heart into my throat.

The Saints defense actually played well for most of the game. They bailed out the team numerous times after turnovers. But they have this habit of breaking down in key situations. Sometimes they come up with big plays, but that’s the problem, there’s no in-between. Either they make a huge play or they give up a huge play. In 2012 they have a new defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo), so hopefully this will improve.

The offense, as wonderful as it is, needs to play better in the first halves of games. They basically did the same thing against the Lions (getting into a hole, then coming back) the week before, but because that game was in New Orleans, they were able to overcome the adversity and the turnovers.

I think the hit on Pierre Thomas may have been the play that made the biggest difference in the game. Without PT, the Saints become predictable based on their personnel. When Sproles is in the game it’s a pass; when Ivory’s in the game it’s a run. Also, PT has a beast-mode in the playoffs. He was injured for last year’s loss to Seattle as well. He’s really key to what makes the Saints offense so flexible. This might sound crazy, but I’d rather have lost Sproles to injury than Pierre Thomas.

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