The New Orleans Saints (12-4) start their run to Super Bowl LV this weekend as they host the Chicago Bears (8-8) for the 2021 NFC Wild Card game inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sunday will be the second meeting this season between the two sides, the first coming at Soldier Field in Week 8. New Orleans was victorious in overtime, 26-23. As the two NFC foes ready for a loser goes home battle, here are three things to watch leading up to and during Sunday's NFC Wild Card matchup.
As the Injury Report Shortens...Who's In? Who's Out?
Despite losing their entire running backs room and positional coach for Week 17 because of Alvin Kamara's positive COVID-19 test and contract tracing, the Saints won in blowout fashion against the Panthers. The decisive victory over their division rivals, without key players on both sides of the ball, proved the Saints have one of the deepest rosters in football. However, reinforcements are on the way for the Saints as they continue to return to health right in time for the playoffs.
John Hendrix reported that both WRs Michael Thomas and WR Deonte Harris returned to practice this week. Neither player carries an injury designation as they return from injured reserve and are in the three-week activation window.
The Saints should also be returning critical pieces to the defense ahead of Wild-Card weekend. Defensive backs C.J Gardner-Johnson a.k.a 'Ceedy Duce' and D.J Swearinger's return is expected from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Fellow safety Marcus Williams was a participant in this week's practice.
As for superstar RB Alvin Kamara, he is eligible to play Sunday if he continues to show no symptoms and had a negative COVID-19 test later this week. The recent 2nd-team All-Pro running back did not physically practice with the team but participated via TVU technology and Zoom videos as the team installed their offense for Sunday's contest.
QB Drew Brees spoke his confidence in Kamara's ability to play without practicing. "I think Alvin's going to be just fine. I think it's something all of us have had to deal with in some way, whether it be an injury or whatever the absence is, where you have to find your way to prepare both physically, mentally, emotionally, leading up to the game even with limited reps.”
Follow the Saints' injury reports throughout the week at saints.media.
Saints' Chance at Wild Card Redemption
Beyond the Saints' subpar outing during Wild Card round a year ago, New Orleans and Wild Card matchups have often ended in heartbreak for the franchise. New Orleans has competed in 10 Wild Card matchups in the franchise's history where they are 4-6, including a 2-2 record under Sean Payton.
The heartbreaking losses for the Saints organization in the NFC Wild Card weekends date back to The Dome Patrol's days. They failed to win in 1988, 1991, 1992, and 1993. New Orleans was unable to breakthrough until "Hakim dropped the ball!" and the St. Louis Rams for the franchise's first-ever playoff victory in 2000.
New Orleans would not take part in a Wild-Card matchup again for 11-years, then 'BeastQuake' happened in Seattle. The unforgettable touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch was the key play that dethroned the defending champion. It was a painful early playoff exit and the first of too many heartbreaking playoff losses for the Who Dat Nation.
Fast forward to 2019, New Orleans hosts Minnesota in Wild-Card weekend and come out flat, eventually losing the game in overtime. On Sunday, New Orleans gets their chance at redemption against another NFC North opponent, the 8-8 Chicago Bears. And while a victory may not mend every broken heart in New Orleans, it would undoubtedly bring hope for what could be a final run at the Super Bowl for Drew Brees.
The Effect of a Silent Superdome
"It's weird. I mean, listen, we'd love to get the Who Dat chant going before the game, we'd love to hear the crowd getting crazy, everything else.” Saints QB Drew Brees
2020 was a year like no other, and while the calendar now says 2021, not a lot has changed in terms of the partly empty Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The usually 75,000+ screaming fans have been quieted from a roar to mere whisper. No more than 3,000 fans have been in attendance for Saints games this season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is unclear how many fans will be in attendance for Sunday's playoff contest as the City of New Orleans will revert to a modified version of Phase 1. This weekend's game will allow the Superdome to hold around 3,500 for the NFC Wild Card round.
The Saints have not and will not possess the same home-field advantage they did just a year ago. It has been evident throughout the regular season that the Superdome, one of the toughest places to play in the NFL, is not the same without the Who Dats.
Quarterbacks are not affected pre-snap without the noise. The players cannot feed off the crowd's energy after a big play, and "Choppa Style" blaring over the speakers is just not the same without a crowd to dance to it.
So how will the Superdome feel in a playoff game without 75,000 screaming fans? Weird... just weird and Sean Payton agrees.
"It's not the same. I don't even know how many fans we're going to have or if it's been announced yet, but anyway, can you create one? It's the team creating its excitement and generating its excitement.
I think you've got to be ready, but I think this year, uniquely this year, look, the away games for any of these opponents is not as daunting maybe as it would be when you have to go in and deal with the crowd noise and all the other factors."
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