Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Saints this season is the way in which their offensive proficiency impacts the early-game decision making by opposing coaches.
On Thanksgiving night, the Falcons twice went for it on fourth down near midfield—once just before the half when trailing by 14 and once just after the half, also down 14.
While two scores is a sizable difference, it shouldn’t feel insurmountable with players like Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley and Matt Ryan on the offense. And yet, here was head coach Dan Quinn, essentially going all in with 50% of the football game remaining. Had the Falcons not converted the fourth down before halftime, New Orleans would have had plenty of time to score. When they missed the fourth-down conversion after halftime, it presented Sean Payton and Drew Brees with the ideal kill shot (Atlanta forced a punt).
(While both of the fourth-down decisions were analytically sound, according to the revered fourth-down bot and its success-rate breakdown, an accompanying analysis shows just how often coaches actually try it, which is not that often).
This fear of getting pummeled by the Saints is not unfounded. As Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk pointed out on Thursday, the Saints are on pace to set the record for fewest punts in a season. They score almost 40 points per game. Teams come in with a defensive plan to stop them, and when that plan inevitably fails, they panic and begin trying to match the highest-scoring team in the NFL in a shootout. Outside of the fourth-down attempts, the Falcons were similarly scattershot after halftime, attempting risky deep passes on third and short and runs on second and long in order to quell a Saints defense that was unleashing their best pass rushers on every down.
Think of the advantage this gives Payton, whose team basically had two chances to bury the Falcons with half the game remaining (they ended up doing so with a long, physical drive toward the end of the third quarter anyway). Their fast track offense has such a high percentage of putting up points early, that it turns every resulting drive by the opposition into a do-or-die situation.
Stress impacts decision-making in so many different ways. Many offensive coaches have plays in their hip pocket for decisive situations—I’ve heard coaches call it their “gotta have it” section of the call sheet—though they probably don’t anticipate burning through them before the start of the fourth quarter and putting all of it on film.
The crippling emotional effect of having the game on the line so early also plays a part—the knowledge that the game can basically end from a second-quarter decision is gut-turning. The eventual hole a team digs itself is demoralizing.
After the Saints scored to put themselves up 31–10 Thursday (the Falcons got one more late touchdown to make the final score 31–17), the broadcast showed an exasperated Ryan walking back to the bench to grab his helmet, and the look on his face—a mix of pick-up basketball-induced exhaustion and general bewilderment—said it all. His team had lost this game a long time ago, but there was still plenty of time left on the clock.
Here’s what else you may have missed if you (wisely) spent the day away from the television, engaged in stimulating conversation with sage, older relatives over a piece of pumpkin pie.
• During the interview process and early stages of his head coaching career, Matt Patricia tried to distance himself from Bill Belichick in a few ways. Perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that so many of Belichick’s fellow assistants tried and failed to replicate the coach’s terse persona on and off the field, Patricia insisted he was his own man when, in a few ways, he seems to have fallen back on some of his mentor’s truisms.
That’s fine and dandy if the Lions were winning, but under Patricia they have regressed. The Lions fell to a Bears team missing their starting quarterback on Thanksgiving, 23–16, after giving up 14 points in the fourth quarter. They’re now 4–7, the only team in the NFC North who could be safely dismissed from the playoff conversation. They’ve given up 20 or more points in all but two of their games this year. They are fifth in total points surrendered and are third to last in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rankings. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford seems to be tiring himself out leading this punchless offense.
In fairness to Patricia, he needs time to sort out his coaching staff and roster. Just because a previous coach had a winning record with this team, doesn’t mean a year of aging, free agency and injuries can’t sink a season. But…with so many Patriot assistants littered along the highway behind him, do performance issues spark concern earlier than normal?
• The Cowboys could shift into the NFC East driver’s seat by default. Their win over Washington on Thursday continues a turnaround that began at the beginning of the month, when Dallas was beaten handily in prime time by the Tennessee Titans.
Washington was without their starting quarterback and still managed to expose some of the Cowboys’ deficiencies. They remain rather one-handed as an offense despite the emergence of Amari Cooper. Still, this is two victories over divisional opponents in a row. They face the white-hot Saints to round out the month in a game that will almost certainly serve as a barometer of their recent success.
For now, they are winning the games they should and the games they have to. Will that translate to a noticeable separation from the pack?
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