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Rule changes aside, the Saints had the first-round bye, and they lost it. Enough said. I can butter up the Week 14 loss with mental grit and resilience as meaningful takeaways, but that loss ultimately took away a free-pass New Orleans desperately could have used.
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Take out the running back room depletion. This still doesn’t change the potency of the offense, and corresponding limitations of such, depending on the presence of Michael Thomas. We saw with him this season what rushing a player back early does to said player. What happens if Thomas is a game-time decision?
Any sane person would argue that you play him. I’m hard-pressed to agree. Is he necessary to win the Wild Card round? I would argue not. Is he necessary to win the Super Bowl? Absolutely. On the one hand, you can’t get there without winning the Wild Card round; you simply don’t sit a player like Michael Thomas in the playoffs.
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On the other hand, suppose this weekend is cutting it awfully close for his wholly unknown return trajectory. Thomas is going to play if he can play. New Orleans will play Thomas if he can play. But just because he can, doesn’t necessarily he should, nor that this week was the planned point of return.
An easy way to avoid making this decision would have been to avoid this weekend entirely. If the Saints just beat Philadelphia, they would have the No. 1 seed and resultant bye. It almost seems like the fall from grace is a requisite for the season; this loss, indeed, might have been a necessary evil for long-term success.
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It doesn’t make it any less frustrating that destiny was once held in our hands, and our star player on offense could have certainly used the bye week.
#Saints RB/WR Ty Montgomery has one carry this season. He last had more than 3 carries on Dec. 8 while playing for the #Jets. He’ll probably get more tomorrow with Alvin Kamara… and all the other backs out.
Kamara’s status will also depend on further COVID testing and whether or not he develops symptoms during the week. However, if he is eligible, it would seem likely that the Saints will try to use him in some capacity considering his value to the team.
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Kamara just tied a 91-year-old NFL record with six touchdown runs in Week 16 before he was sidelined in Week 17. He led the NFL with 21 touchdowns this season and finished third in the league with 1,688 yards from scrimmage.
With or without Kamara in the lineup, the Saints should have their backup running backs eligible — including veteran Latavius Murray, who ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears last season while Kamara was injured.
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Murray, running back Dwayne Washington and fullback Michael Burton were all ruled out for Week 17 on Saturday because they were deemed as high-risk close contacts with Kamara. All of them will be eligible to return early this week if they don’t test positive. Veteran RB/WR Ty Montgomery filled in at the last minute and wound up running for 105 yards in the Saints’ 33-7 win at Carolina.
Meanwhile, Thomas is expected back close to full health this week after a minimum three-week stay on injured reserve. That will be big for a Saints offense that has only had Thomas and quarterback Drew Brees healthy on the field together for a total of 10 quarters this season.
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Thomas has been battling a nagging ankle sprain all year after he first suffered it in Week 1. He returned in Week 9 and played six more games. But Payton said the team decided to rest him over the final three weeks so the ankle would have time to get as close to 100% as possible.
Brees reiterated on Sunday night that, “I know we get Mike Thomas back — I think the last three weeks being down have been great for him.”
Brees, too, seems to be on the mend from the 11 broken ribs and punctured lung that sidelined him from Weeks 11-14. Brees showed his best rhythm and timing yet in Week 17, completing 22 of 32 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns.
“Obviously we wanted to end the season continuing to ascend, and I think for me, just continuing to feel healthier and more comfortable each and every week,” Brees said after the game.
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— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 2, 2021
The Ugly: COVID-19
As encouraging as it is to see the continuous and creative ways the Saints find to win football games, things like this just cannot happen on the path to the Super Bowl.
We ultimately don’t know how Alvin Kamara incurred COVID-19. Kamara’s actions aside; past Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington, and Michael Burton, New Orleans placed safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and D.J. Swearinger, and GM Mickey Loomis, on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week.
A flurry of roster moves by the #Saints in the aftermath of Alvin Kamara’s positive COVID-19 test and close contacts: pic.twitter.com/HveNqufehd
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 2, 2021
That’s the largest number of Saints players on the reserve list all season. It was equal parts funny and alarming what happened to the Denver Broncos; the loss of the entire running back room easily could have cost New Orleans. In fact, with the Seattle win, a loss today would have cost the Saints the No. 2 seed. This outbreak still, in fact, may cost them.
If Kamara starts exhibiting symptoms tomorrow, he will be unable to play in the Wild Card game; a player who shows symptoms after testing positive can return after at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared. The same is true for C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Both players are critical for a postseason berth.
New Orleans can’t withstand a last-season crumble to COVID-19; no team could. This season, staying healthy is not limited to game-related injuries. The challenge to persevere includes surmounting such outbreaks.
While “Prove Them Right” has a better ring to it, “Stay the Hell Inside” might prove paramount for the Saints success. That, and avoiding any outbreaks in a position unit Taysom Hill takes snaps in – talk about a Swiss Army Spreader.