If ever a team felt like they had unfinished business to take care of, it’s the victims of the Minneapolis Miracle, the New Orleans Saints. With 10 seconds remaining, trailing the Saints 24-23 in the NFC Divisional Playoff, on third down at Minnesota’s 39-yard line, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum took the snap and heaved a 27-yard pass to Stefon Diggs. Diggs leapt to reel in the catch, with Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams bearing down on him. All Williams had to do was… well, anything other than what he did, and the game was over. Instead Williams tried to undercut the airborne receiver but missed. Diggs, unable to believe his luck, landed and set off for the endzone. Meanwhile, Williams’ momentum sent him into the path of trailing teammate Ken Crawley, taking the cornerback out of the play and eliminating any chance of catching the streaking Viking.
Pandemonium ensued in the US Bank Stadium as shell-shocked Saints players and coaches, wandered around, wondering how they’d ended up on the losing end of a game they’d had won. Needless to say, head coach Sean Payton has been using New Orleans’ untimely playoff exit as a motivation tool this summer.
“Remember the game Snakes & Ladders,” he told his team in training camp. “You hit a snake, you came all the way to the start. That's where we are right now, at the beginning with the dice.”
Instead of tuning out the talking heads and their expectations based on last season, Payton has embraced and used them. As you walked into the Saints’ training facility in camp, you were greeted by a banner saying, “Prove them right” and that’s been the credo for his side’s offseason.
An incredible draft haul in 2017 transformed New Orleans’ fortunes. Ahead of last year, 38-year-old starting quarterback Drew Brees was beginning to look his age and Payton was coming off a third straight 7-9 record. Then general manager Mickey Loomis hit on not one, not two, not three but five impact rookies in the NFL’s annual selection meeting.
Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and safety Williams emerged as starters and defensive end Trey Hendrickson pitched in with two sacks, but the biggest contributors were their 11th and 67th picks. Running back Alvin Kamara (67th) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (11th) won the NFL’s Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards respectively, the first time in 50 years that has happened, and lifted both units.
Kamara and bulldozing rusher Mark Ingram combined for 1,852 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground and an additional 1,242 yards and five TDs through the air. Their effectiveness eased the burden on Brees, who threw the fewest yards, touchdowns and interceptions of his career but set a league record by completing 72% of his passes. All three made the Pro Bowl and were joined by big-play receiver Michael Thomas. The offseason saw them add big-bodied Cameron Meredith to their receiving ranks, giving Brees the kind of red-zone target he loves to throw to. And last week, the savvy Saints also traded for Brees’ likely heir, Teddy Bridgewater, who also solidifies the back-up quarterback role should the starter go down.
Lattimore joined his teammates in Orlando for the all-star game having instantly established himself as a shutdown cornerback, stealing five interceptions (including one for a score) and knocking down 18 passes. Fellow defensive back Williams himself picked off four passes.
In this year’s Draft, Loomis traded away their 2019 first round pick to move up and grab raw 6ft 7in pass rusher Marcus Davenport out of University of Texas, San Antonio. Davenport is only the second ever player to be drafted from UTSA, compared to 383 from Michigan or 356 from the University of Texas proper.
With the underrated Sheldon Rankins opposite Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, who had 13 sacks last season, in place, any push developmental project Davenport can give will be a bonus. Against the run, Dennis Allen’s defense got a boost from Demario Davis, who came over as a free agent from the Jets, having racked up 135 tackles in New York last year.
In 2016, Atlanta and NFL MVP Matt Ryan swept all before them in the South on their way to the Super Bowl, where, like New Orleans in Minneapolis, they had the game all sewn up at 28-3 over the Patriots after halftime, only for Tom Brady to pilot that particular miracle. Despite that hellacious Super Bowl hangover, Dan Quinn’s team were parked at the Eagles’ nine-yard line in the NFC Divisional Playoff looking to punch in the winning score with a minute left in January, but couldn’t get the job done. Offensive co-ordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaced Kyle Shanahan, felt the heat but kept his job in the offseason. He and Ryan got another weapon to add to the monstrous pass-catcher Julio Jones in first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley from Alabama. Deion Jones and Keanu Neal lead a lightning-fast defense that needs to lift its performance to push the Falcons back to the big game.