EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — They had this date from the beginning, the Saints and Jets did.
The NFL schedule-makers decreed that New Orleans would play here Nov. 3, the far turn of the Saints’ slate before making the charge for home with the season’s final eight games.
But what this particular game showed is that, as far as the Saints are concerned, there are no more guarantees. If New Orleans wants to play here again in MetLife Stadium, site of Super Bowl Trump (Wait, he hasn’t tried to buy it and slap his smarmy name on it? Give him time.) they can’t be the team they were Sunday in a 26-20 loss to the Jets.
That’s the New York Jets, who returned to North Jersey last week in the trunk of a car after being given “The Godfather” treatment (“Leave the football. Take the cannoli.”) in a 49-9 loss at Cincinnati.
Not that the now-5-4 Jets are a bad team, just a wildly inconsistent one. And not that the now-6-2 Saints aren’t a very good team, just one with some glaring deficiencies, the likes of which get you sent packing from the playoffs far short of the big Roman Numeral Game.
It would be fun to blame the Saints’ sorrows Sunday on referee Clete Blakeman, the Wrong Way Corrigan of this week’s block and tackle theatre. Blakeman got this blunderfest going when he tried to give the Saints the coin toss after the Jets had won it, forcing Jonathan Vilma, honorable veteran that he is, to volunteer that he called tails.
It was the first misstep in a game that for the Saints was filled with far too much faux and pas: pre-snap penalties, wasted timeouts, pinball passes that turned into interceptions and dropped passes as the crowning touch.
Nick Toon did both, letting slip a wide-open pass and tipping an interception to Antonio Cromartie that probably made his dad, Al Toon, want to disown him.
Then again, being a former Jet (and once you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way), maybe old Al was secretly pleased. After all, his former team needed a win worse than his son’s team did.
This upset aside, the Jets are too topsy-turvy to string together enough playoff wins to become the first team to play in a Super Bowl on its home turf. This loss aside, the Saints are good enough to get back here — or at least we thought they were.
But to make a return engagement in the Meadowlands, the Saints can’t allow themselves to get outrushed by their opponents 198-41, as was the case Sunday. Sure, Chris Ivory was certainly charged with some extra motivation to beat the Saints team that let him slip away in an April trade. But his 139 rushing yards alone aren’t the whole story. Heck, if he just hit his season average coming in (46 yards), he still would have outrushed the Saints singlehandedly.
New Orleans managed only 41 rushing yards in part because tight end Josh Hill got thrown for an 8-yard loss on an end-around on fourth-and-inches from the Jets 36 in the fourth quarter.
Let’s leave for a moment the question of when was the last time Hill rushed the ball in his entire football career. (High school? Junior high?) Let’s also leave aside the notion that if Les Miles allowed such a play to be called at LSU (or that the Saints’ loss to a middling team like the Jets was oh-so-similar to the Tigers’ loss to a middling team like Ole Miss), people would be calling for his head. Fortunately for Sean Payton, he is viewed as a football genius.
Visor checkmates hat in the eyes of so many.
But why did Payton decide to reach into his bag of tricks in such a situation? It’s because deep down he has no faith in the Saints’ running game to gain scant inches.
New Orleans’ passing game is typically as impressive a sight to behold as the Manhattan skyline. Sunday, Drew Brees outpassed Geno Smith 382-115. It was no contest, but no matter how Miss America beautiful your passing game is, there are times when … you … must … be … able … to … run … the … ball.
Certainly losing Darren Sproles to a concussion on his one and only carry during the Saints’ first possession didn’t help. But being able to run the ball effectively when you need to is an incontrovertible rule of football, like a law of physics or the fact that Baton Rouge traffic is just as bad as Manhattan traffic with seven times fewer people.
In that regard, the Saints offensive line has been found wanting all season in terms of run blocking and protecting Brees. He has been hit more this season than any other season in his Saints career and suffered another battering Sunday.
In the end, though, there was Brees with the ball, 81 yards from the end zone, down six with two minutes to go. You know the Jets had to be quaking. Despite a mountain of problems to climb in this game, just like in their loss at New England, the game was there for New Orleans to win in the end. There is some reassurance in that for Saints fans, and hope still for a championship future.
If the Saints can make it here under those circumstances, they can make it anywhere. Next week against the Cowboys, at Seattle, at suddenly resurgent Carolina, which is now breathing hard down the Saints’ collar only a game back.
The question is, can they make it back here?