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The Saints’ Playoff Run Ended in Heartbreak—Again

Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and Co. once again saw their season slip away in the final seconds. There is no one place to point the finger, but these tragic endings could now define the twilight of Brees’s career.

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What was the point of the NFL’s new reviewable pass interference rule if this isn’t called offensive pass interference?

On the game-winning overtime play for the Vikings, Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph extended his arms and pushed off of Saints defensive back P.J. Williams. It seems like the textbook definition of PI, and yet when officials reviewed this play, they determined that no pass interference occurred. Game, set, skol—the Vikings win 26-20, and are moving on to Santa Clara to take on the 49ers in the NFL’s divisional round.

This wasn’t the most consequential or tragic play in the Saints’ loss (we’ll get to some others), but it was the most unbelievably ironic. Last season, the Saints lost to the Rams in the NFC championship game in part due to a botched no-call on what was obvious pass interference. They spent the offseason lobbying for the NFL to make such calls reviewable … and then lost on a botched no-call on what was obvious pass interference anyway.

This has been par for the course. All season long, NFL officials have been highly reluctant to overturn pass interference calls or no-calls, despite the fact that they regularly overturn other calls all the time. The result is a bizarre dichotomy in how pass plays are reviewed versus how every other play is reviewed.

This is the third time in the past three years that the Saints’ season has ended in heartbreak. Before these last two no-calls, there was the Minneapolis Miracle. It’s an incredible run of sadness, and this year particularly stings. The Saints were unlucky just to be playing on wild-card weekend. The 49ers and Packers beat them out for byes, and now New Orleans is the first 13-3 team to ever be eliminated before the NFL’s divisional round. They’re also the first team ever to finish back-to-back seasons at 13-3 and not make a Super Bowl appearance. The level of tragedy is becoming historic:

Of course, the Saints weren’t eliminated solely because of one no-call. They also blew it. New Orleans scored 10 points in the first three quarters of the game, putting themselves in a 20-10 hole to open the fourth quarter. And while they rallied to tie the game, they missed several opportunities to win. With just over four minutes left in the game, the Saints drove 37 yards down the field, putting the Vikings on their heels. Then Brees put the football on the turf for the first time all season:

On the ensuing Vikings possession, Sean Payton incorrectly used his timeouts. He took his second timeout with 2:54 remaining and the Vikings facing a nearly impossible third-and-19. Kirk Cousins was sacked on the next play, but Payton didn’t use another timeout. Then on the ensuing punt, Deonte Harris attempted a return rather than call for a fair catch, which brought the clock to the two-minute warning, rather than save the two-minute stoppage for when the Saints were on offense.

If Payton had called both his timeouts immediately, he would have had another 40 seconds or so on the clock, plus the two-minute warning. If he’d called neither timeout, he still would have gotten the ball at the two-minute warning, but would have had two timeouts in his pocket. By splitting the difference, he essentially wasted a timeout for nothing.

On the following drive, the Saints moved the ball into field goal range, but then suffered a false start on what should have been a routine spike. That cost the team 5 yards and triggered an automatic 10-second runoff, bringing the clock down to 11 seconds left—a runoff they could have prevented had they used their last timeout. Instead, they threw an incompletion on the next play, and then kicked the game-tying field goal. They never even used the timeout they saved.

A year ago, the Saints also had plenty of opportunities to win against the Rams—it wasn’t just the missed pass interference call. The same was true in this game. It’s taken a confluence of poor execution and bad luck to defeat the Saints in each of the past three offseasons. And any way you slice it, it’s tragic.

After the game, Saints linebacker Demario Davis rationalized the loss by saying “You have to realize it’s the end of a chapter and not a book.” It’s true, there is always next season—but the past three chapters have ended in brutal sadness. How much will postseason tragedy define Brees’s and Payton’s legacies?

Brees is already a bit of an oddball of his quarterbacking generation. He has a ring, and he has the all-time passing records, but he’s been to only one Super Bowl, quarterbacked a handful of seven-win teams, and has never won an MVP. And now he has the playoff disasters. His records will be passed in due time, and without those his all-time legacy will look sparse next to so many of his peers.

Brees will turn 41 in a couple of weeks. He already shows signs of decline: He rarely throws the ball downfield anymore and doesn’t have the same zip on all of his throws. His days of eclipsing 5,000 passing yards in his sleep are long over. Unless a new, more fruitful chapter writes itself next year, these playoff snafus will make up a huge part of the legacy of one of the league’s greatest passers ever. There’s no one person to blame—it’s on the officials, the roster, Payton, and Brees himself. But no matter what, it’s a bummer.