Opinion: Saints’ new legacy being redefined by crushing playoff exits … in January

NEW ORLEANS — Fooled us, again.

The New Orleans Saints have this remarkable ability to rack up wins, statistics, records and Super expectations. Then comes January. The bubble bursts.

It happened again Sunday at the Superdome — where the decibel level went from a peak of 120 to a flat-lined zero after the Minnesota Vikings scored a 26-20 walk-off overtime victory that silenced the typically raucous Who Dat Nation.

Who saw this coming?

The Vikings came in as the lowest seed in the NFC playoffs. The Saints had never lost at home in the playoffs with Sean Payton and Drew Brees collaborating — except for last year, when they were robbed by the bogus non-call in the NFC title game.

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Saints quarterback Drew Brees walks off the field after an overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings in a NFC wild-card game. (Photo: John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports)

For much of Sunday, it was sticky. Yet the Saints were in furious rally mode in the fourth quarter. It was right there to be written: Another Brees-led comeback keeps those Super Bowl hopes flowing.

But Brees fumbled away the chance for a go-ahead touchdown. Then, on the next chance, Payton, criticized last year for being too risky in crunch time of the NFC title game, curiously played it conservatively to get the field goal that sent the game to overtime. The Saints' offense never touched the football in OT because the Vikings ripped off the clutch plays to put them out of their — or into more — misery.

Time to face a basic fact: The Saints can’t win The Big One.

Sure, Brees and Payton led the march to a Super Bowl crown that capped the 2009 season, which is one reason why there’s the expectation that they will do it again with a different cast of supporting characters.

No doubt, the officials stung New Orleans again, failing to call offensive pass interference against Kyle Rudolph, who pushed off on P.J. Williams before hauling in the winning touchdown that was upheld by the replay review in New York. Another tough break, ironically after the hubbub last year led to an expansion of the replay rule.

Still, it should not have come to that. The Saints can’t pin this one on the officials. Not when the winning score was set up by a 43-yard completion from Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen. Not when the Saints run defense, which still has the NFL’s longest streak of games not allowing a 100-yard rusher, was gashed for 84 yards by Dalvin Cook in the first half (94, for the game). Not when the usually-reliable Will Lutz, who had connected on 18 field goals in a row, missed a 43-yard try as the first half expired.

And certainly not when Brees, the NFL’s all-time leading passer, threw for the second-lowest total in a playoff game in his career (208 yards), with two turnovers. It was backup quarterback/hybrid slash factor Taysom Hill, not Brees, who provided the spark for the Saints (a 50-yard completion, team-high 50 yards rushing, a 20-yard TD catch), which was promising but weird.

One snap after Hill rumbled for a 28-yard run in the fourth quarter, Brees had the football shaken loose while trying to avoid a Danielle Hunter sack. Brees had been so hot lately, grooving in December with a 15-0 TD-to-INT ratio. But Sunday was not Brees Appreciation Day. Beyond the fumble, he threw a panicky second-quarter interception on a deep heave into double coverage. The 30-yard return set up a 45-yard touchdown drive that gave the Vikings their first lead.

Brees, who will be 41 next season, has undeniable Hall of Fame credentials. And Payton will someday have a case, too. He has built a progressive program that consistently remains in the hunt, chasing the championship glory. The Super Bowl crown on his resume can never be taken away.

But the legacy for these recent versions of the Saints is marred by these crushing playoff setbacks, now three years running, beginning with the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Once again, they will go into the next season needing to demonstrate that they are still plenty resilient.

Maybe it’s too harsh to suggest that they can’t win The Big One. Perhaps they can.

At this rate, though, they can’t even get to The Big One.

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