Turns out, there is no curse. Just a confluence of craziness conspired to upend the Saints’ Super Bowl hopes a season ago. Case Keenum made an unbelievable throw, Stefon Diggs made a miraculous catch, and Marcus Williams inexplicably forgot to tackle him. That play, which proved to be the game-winning touchdown in last January’s NFC Divisional playoff game, had no bearing on what transpired on Sunday night. When it was over, the Saints cruised to a 30-20 win to move to 6-1 on the season and make the case that they’re just behind the Rams as the best team in the conference.
Death by 1,000 dump-offs
That was the Saints’ game plan all evening — Drew Brees taking exactly what the defense gave him. Save a lone mistake (more on that below), he was content to dink and dunk his way down the field. Of course, we crush guys like Alex Smith for his Captain Checkdown antics, but the difference is that Brees can beat you in ways you haven’t even thought up yet.
But on Sunday night, the Vikings secondary, without starters Xavier Rhodes and Andrew Sendejo, weren’t going to let Brees beat them deep. And he didn’t. Instead, he beat them with one short pass after the next. He finished 18 of 23 for just 120 yards, good for 5.2 yards per attempt.
In fact, the longest pass play of the evening came courtesy of Taysom Hill, who connected with Mike Thomas on this 44-yard pass play:
The lesson: Good luck trying to slow the Saints’ offense. The Vikings did pressure Brees a few times, but coach Mike Zimmer knew better than to press his luck, especially with a depleted secondary, and the results were the same — a New Orleans win, even if the team took a different path to get there.
Drew Brees finally threw his first interception
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Brees, even if he didn’t have a Brees-ian night. The 39-year-old remains one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, and the most recent evidence is the first six games of the 2018 season. Brees, in his 18th season, is completing a career-best 77 percent of his throws and until Sunday evening had exactly zero turnovers. No picks, no fumbles, just touchdowns.
But the Vikings’ defense, which came into the came 19th against the pass after ranking fourth in that category a season ago, got after Brees on the fourth drive of the game and forced the quarterback into a rare mistake. But instead of how these things usually end — with an incompletion at worst, Brees threw high over the middle, airmailing intended receiver Michael Thomas. Safety Harrison Smith made a great play on the ball for his third pick of the season.
In case you’re wondering, that was Brees’ 232nd pass attempt of the season. And his last interception? Well, that came in January … against the Vikings in the NFC Divisional playoffs.
P.J. Williams’ night improves immeasurably after rough start
The Saints’ pass defense came into Sunday night ranked 30th, better than only the Raiders and Buccaneers. Williams, a 2015 third-round pick, ranked 106 out of 112 cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and through the first quarter he looked even worse. But his fortune changed with just over a minute to go in the second quarter.
With the Vikings leading 13-10 and poised to score again just before the half, Williams forced an Adam Thielen fumble that was recovered by Marshon Lattimore and returned to the 33-yard line.
A play later, the Saints scored to make it 17-13 at the break.
Then, in the third quarter, Stefon Diggs inexplicably quit running in the middle of his route. Williams did not, and he was rewarded with the easiest interception of his career. The reward didn’t stop there, but instead 45 yards later in the end zone.
Thielen jumpstarted the turnaround
Unfortunately, that turnaround belonged to the Saints. It began with the aforementioned fumble near the end of the first half. Two plays later, New Orleans leads, 17-13. The Vikings got the ball to start the third quarter and fourth-and-1 from their own 45-yard line, the play call involves a pass to Laquon Treadwell. Predictably, the ball fell incomplete. Nine plays later, the Saints kick a field goal to make it, 20-13. Then, five plays after that, the other aforementioned gaffe — Couins’ Jameis-like pick-six that made it 27-13.
(We have to say: Unlike the four picks Winston threw Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, the pick-six wasn’t Cousins’ fault. Diggs stopped, Williams didn’t, and 45 yards later the Saints had a 14-point lead.)
On the next drive, Cousins faced third-and-4 from midfield and Sheldon Rankins ate Cousins whole.
The Vikings finally got into the end zone on their fourth drive of the half but by then it was too late. The Saints, now leading, 30-20, recovered the onside kick and left the Vikings no time to mount a comeback.
Silver lining: Thielen joins Megatron
Michael Thomas is almost always the best receiver on any field he steps on. On Sunday he was No. 2, at least in terms of advanced stats. In terms of total value, Football Outsiders ranks Thomas just behind Adam Thielen, who despite that ill-timed fumble continued to put up eye-popping numbers. He surpassed 100 receiving yards for the eighth straight game, which puts him in some very special company.
What if the Jaguars had landed Cousins?
This is probably something you don’t want to think about if you’re either Mike Zimmer or Doug Marrone. The Vikings were happy — and, it turns out, wise — to let Case Keenum walk after his Hall of Fame season with the team in 2017. There was no way he was duplicating that again, and the $18 million-a-year price tag was too rich for what he could realistically be expected to do as an encore.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, decided to give Blake Bortles a three-year, $54 million in January and for good reason: He played some of the best football of his career in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots. A loss, by the way, that had everything to do with the Jags’ defense not playing well down the stretch while Bortles was balling out. Of course, Bortles has regressed this season, to the point that he was benched for Cody Kessler last week only to be reinstated ahead of Sunday’s game in London against the Eagles. He finished 24 of 41 with a touchdown and no interceptions in the loss, but it’s pretty easy to imagine that the Jaguars — who are having all sorts of issues with their defense too — would be much better than their 3-5 record if they had been willing to pay Cousins what he was worth to come to Jacksonville in the offseason.
If you’re wondering why we’re even talking about this in the context of “Sunday Night Football,” it’s because CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora reported earlier Sunday that the Jaguars were interested in Cousins but balked at his price tag.
But that’s not the only quarterback who was available before the season:
The Jaguars made no attempts to upgrade around Bortles prior to the start of the season despite having numerous opportunities to do so via trades and signings. The Jets, league sources said, reached out to Jacksonville when they began to shop promising backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, making the QB readily available. But the Jaguars displayed no interest in acquiring him. Bridgewater was viewed as an emerging potential franchise quarterback prior to suffering a serious knee injury in Minnesota and was dealt to New Orleans for essentially a third-round pick.
Cousins signed a three-year, all-guaranteed $84 million deal with the Vikings, but the Saints got Bridgewater and a sixth-rounder for a third-rounder. Certainly, the Jags could’ve afforded that. Good news: Bridgewater will be a free agent after the season and Jacksonville can make another run at him. Sadly, Cousins is in Minnesota through 2020.
The Saints (6-1) host the Rams (8-0) in the biggest game of Week 9. New Orleans has a chance to make their case for a much-needed first-round playoff bye while Los Angeles continues to steamroll their way through their schedule. Does that stop next Sunday?
The Vikings (4-3-1) remain atop the NFC North and host the Lions next week. After a Week 10 bye, they’ll return for two other division games — at Chicago and the Packers — before traveling to face the Patriots and then the Seahawks. Put another way: A month from now, Minnesota could be proving themselves as one of the NFC’s best teams … or their season could effectively be over.
Relive the big Sunday night matchup in our live blog below.
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