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Heartbreak, Replayed

The New Orleans Saints’ past two seasons have ended in brutal fashion. As they get ready for a rematch of last season’s NFC championship game with the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday, how is the fan base supposed to feel?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not the best video on the internet, but it’s up there, and it applies here: There’s a young man hunched over a table on the patio of a small restaurant. Tents and outhouses and lawn furniture whip around in the gray, punishing, monsoon-like weather. The wind whistles, the trees bend, and this guy just carries on calmly eating his dinner, like he’s done countless other times in his life. This is how I used to think about Drew Brees in a two-minute drill.

Hidden beneath the opposing team’s celebrations of a late touchdown, or a last-gasp field goal drive, was the suspicion that they hadn’t actually been last-gasp enough, and were thus probably doomed. There would still be every chance of a seemingly stuffed run turning into an 11-yard pickup, then a screen here, then a 25-yard strike there, and then a slam cut to Sean Payton howling in satisfaction, jabbing the air with his clipboard, bounding into a sideline warning. Even if the Saints leave all the work to do late, they’re capable of this sort of false-bottom, sleight-of-hand, close-up magic, which gives fans—kinda cruelly, if you ask me, a fan—an inexhaustible reserve of hope. When you live by miracles, you can also die by miracles. Gruesomely.

Here’s how the past five playoff runs have ended for New Orleans, and by association, myself:

5. Beast Quake I

There were a little under four minutes left, but it felt like a walk-off. One year after Tracy Porter read Peyton Manning’s slant to Reggie Wayne like an open book and ran off with Super Bowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints failed, with decision, to beat a seven-win Seahawks team that had somehow made the playoffs. Marshawn Lynch achieved godhood by causing a one-magnitude earthquake at CenturyLink after breaking six tackles, and my heart. Not only does he go 67 yards on a broken play for the win, he gets a truly awesome, highly flammable picture grabbing his crotch while leaping backward into the end zone. In the process he heaves Tracy Porter, and any notions of even touching Super Bowl XLV, about a solid 3 yards to the side.

The ESPN game recap reads, woundingly: “Who Dat moving on in the NFC playoffs? It’s the Seahawks.”

4. Vernon Davis Happens

The NFC divisional round in January 2012. There were, in my estimation, about 100 lead changes. Jimmy Graham had a late 66-yard touchdown—and a thunderous goal-post dunk—bettered by Alex Smith, who threw a 14-yard strike to Vernon Davis, who essentially ate Roman Harper while completing the catch. Davis cried, apparently, and it was a beautiful moment, allegedly, when he hugged Jim Harbaugh, fully casting off the yoke of former head coach Mike Singletary, the guy who once sent Davis to the locker room in a 2008 loss to the Seahawks because Singletary would have “rather played with 10 people.” Although I love a good moment of catharsis, of community, I missed it because I had walked out of this place called the Wild Rover Irish Pub, which was just over a half mile from the apartment I rented with some friends while studying abroad in Barcelona. It took me two hours, and three single-euro Estrella beers I bought on the street, to make it home.

3. Beast Quake II

After a few seasons of giving up league-firsts and career-bests to opposing teams’ offensive players, the Saints become a playoff team again just in time to be dispiritingly crushed underfoot. This was in 2014, when Marshawn Lynch drove his Lamborghini Aventador to pick up some pregame doughnuts in a “fuck you” sweatshirt. He then rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns, and the Saints petered out in the divisional round again, 23-15.

A brief, sad story: With seven seconds left, Marques Colston threw a forward lateral out of desperation, and the play was whistled dead. I have this friend that I used to play soccer with coming up who live-texts during games in all caps, with a liberal application of exclamation points. To give you a better idea of him, he owns both Devery Henderson jerseys, the Saints one and the LSU one. He sent me a text, after the game, in all lowercase letters: “colston giveth, colston taketh away.”

2. The Minneapolis Miracle

Marcus Williams ducked under Stefon Diggs, who was going, going, and then gone. The Saints went from a championship berth to a bit part in a future 30 for 30 in the space of about 10 seconds. Twenty-seven yards turned into 61, and another Saints defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Diggs’s celebratory helmet chuck was immortalized with a perfect phone background photo; Williams was Shooting Starred into oblivion.

On the subject of memes, you know the Epic Handshake one, with the two muscle-y arms clasped in agreement, that’s supposed to communicate when two people are on the same wavelength? Me, Case Keenum, and Not Believing Our Luck:

1. NICKELL ROBEY-COLEMAN COMMITS DREAM MURDER

There’s this other pretty good video on the internet, a clip from last December’s heavyweight title bout between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. It’s an aerial shot of Fury, bewildered, flat on his back, five seconds into a standing eight count. He takes a deep, heavy sigh, and then quickly rolls himself over and stands upright, as if he’d accidentally slept through the backup alarm to his backup alarm. This is how now I think about Drew Brees during a two-minute drill.

ESPN NFL columnist Bill Barnwell pointed out, on the conference championship recap episode of The Bill Barnwell Show, that even the bomb he completed to Ted Ginn Jr. to set up The Play, The One We’re Still Talking About, lacked a little conviction. The three hitches before he unloaded—that’s probably not something a 33-year-old or even 38-year-old Drew would have done. Overall, stats-wise, the Saints were top five in just about every offensive category last season; however, as The Athletic’s Mike Sando pointed out on that same recap episode of the Barnwell Show: The Saints weren’t as ominous or as difficult to contain as they had been before a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11. (And yes, this is despite them finishing out the regular season 4-1, if you don’t count the Week 17 loss to Carolina, for which Payton rested every starter he could.) The point is the Saints had already been set down the path to further frustrated potential.

Each August, people get on TV and, with gentle reluctance, as if giving up a trump card, tip New Orleans as a Super Bowl hopeful. The Saints are good, have been good—it’s been more a question of whether they’re good enough to cover all the complications they create for themselves. What I mean is, to be a Saints fan is to understand that they’re probably going to Make It A Game. The divisional-round rematch with the Eagles in January was one such game: Drew Brees broke the Michael Thomas glass and New Orleans eked out a 20-14 win, despite going in as -8 betting favorites. Most people would agree it’s difficult to beat the same team twice in a season; most headlines included some variation of the word “escape.” Against the Los Angeles Rams, in the NFC championship, they just happened to make it too much of a game. For instance, they could have gotten more than a field goal after a Jared Goff interception on the second drive of the game and rode the human electricity in the Dome to an unrecoverable lead and been on the way to Super Bowl LIII by halftime.

Obviously, that did not happen.

There are people who weren’t outraged by this, for whom the world continued to spin unabated, who may have even found some enjoyment in it. The Saints are just one of many teams that didn’t walk away with any championship hardware last season. Like the ecstasy of triumph, the bitter disappointment that comes along with coming up short is also part of the deal with sports. In a vacuum, the final whistle on the 26-23 loss would have just been a ruthless moment of clarity for a More Than Good Enough Team that, once again, couldn’t manage to get out of its own way.

But how can a fan begin to let go of a poor decision that, if reversed, surely would have won the Saints the game, even if it wasn’t the sole thing that lost it for them? Well, you don’t, really. Resenting the very idea of the Shield, and its governing practices, and Roger Goodell’s Meineke spokesman disposition, is also part of being a Saints fan. This may have begun at some inexact point before Bountygate, but obviously since, it’s only intensified. After the shocking pass interference no-call, billboards went up, an actual lawsuit against the NFL was filed, and a boycott led to the Super Bowl TV ratings in New Orleans being the lowest of any TV market in the U.S. at 26.2, well below the average of 44.9.

There were apologies, a rule change, and assurances from Goodell that he understood. It doesn’t matter that he couldn’t possibly. In the end, in reality, the resentment just creates another marquee matchup to tease on Fox—this coming Sunday, there’s a SCORE to settle. The Saints will be out for REVENGE. Tune in at 1:25 p.m. PT, 4:25 p.m. Eastern.

Everyone is trying, with great difficulty, to let it go. “Two years ago, man, the tough loss in Minnesota,” Sean Payton said, speaking to NBC Sports’ Chris Simms in July. “This past year was different. This past year, I would say, was a lot more difficult.” On Monday, Antonio LeMon, the lawyer and Saints superfan who spearheaded the infamous “no call” suit against the league alleging fraud, watched his case get thrown out by the Louisiana Supreme Court. In a statement, LeMon resigned that the NFL “has a license to do whatever it wants to us little ticket-holders, even to commit fraud and deceptive consumer trade practices against us without any civil recourse.” Personally, there are good days and there are dramatic ones. It could have happened to anyone, I’ll think—but it happened to us.

During the Saints’ thrilling shootout win over the Houston Texans on Monday night, it nearly happened again. Obviously there are NFC championships and then there are season openers, but an officiating error is an officiating error. The Saints fell behind early, like they do, and Drew Brees was calmly marching down the field during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half, like he does, when the refs docked New Orleans 15 seconds, owing to a timekeeping gaffe. It would have mattered, had the Saints not put up 27 second-half points, capped off with a 58-yard field goal as time expired, a career-best for kicker Wil Lutz. “That can’t happen,” Brees said after the game. What I heard was That can’t keep happening. It could have been the difference between a touchdown and the failed field goal attempt to close out the first half, but realistically, plenty of things might have made it a different game. There’s plenty that might have made January’s NFC championship a different game.

And so the Saints head to Los Angeles and, if defensive end Cam Jordan’s insistence that “previous years don’t matter to this game” is anything to go by, are not thinking too much about what might have been. The Saints could have won it all last season, just like they could have won it all the year before, just like they could win it all this year.