Throughout the 2020 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints(12-4) have continuously faced and overcame multiple facets of adversity. That did not change in Week 17, as they were without their entire running back corps because of COVID-19 contact tracing, and it will not change during the playoffs.
Against the Chicago Bears (8-8), the Saints will face more adversity, playing without the home-field advantage of the full Who Dat Nation and potentially superstar RB Alvin Kamara. Despite the challenges, New Orleans has continuously overcome and maintained the next man up mentality. This weekend the Black and Gold will rely on a total team effort to survive and advance, but three players could prove to be the difference in the ball game.
Here are the Saints' X-Factors of Wild-Card weekend.
OFFENSIVE X-FACTOR: WR MICHAEL THOMAS
Guess who is back... back again... Mike is back... tell a friend. The 2019 AP Offensive Player of the Year followed up his historic campaign with a rather forgettable 2020. In Week 1 against Tampa Bay, Thomas suffered a high-ankle sprain. The injury kept the former Ohio State Buckeye sidelined for 7 games before returning to action in Week 9 against the Buccaneers.
Thomas began to hit his stride in Week 11, posting his first 100-yard performance of the season. He would go on to record 8+ catches in 3 of his next 4 games before his nagging ankle injury landed him on injured reserve for the final three weeks of the regular season.
Headed into the NFC Wild-Card round, New Orleans designated their star wide-out to return from IR, and Thomas practiced throughout the week. The trio of Brees, Kamara, and Thomas only played 10 quarters together during the 2020 regular season and still managed a 12-4 overall record. Thomas' return brings another wrinkle to the Saints offense, and they should have their soon to be 42-year old quarterback happier than a kid in a candy store.
DEFENSIVE X-FACTOR: DT DAVID ONYEMATA
Chicago won three of their final four regular-season games to squeak their way into the seventh seed and run the ball effectively and set up play action. Against New Orleans, the Bears will face one of the league's best rush defenses led by their stellar defensive line. And though Cameron Jordan and break-out star Trey Hendrickson have stolen the limelight this season, it is DT David Onyemata who could shine in the postseason.
Onyemata finished the regular season as the Saints' highest-rated defensive player by Pro Football Focus with an 88.2 overall grade. The 2016 fourth-round pick signed a three-year extension in the offseason and set new career highs in 2020. Onyemata recorded 44 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and 16 QB hits in 15 games.
In the playoffs, games are won and lost in the trenches. Chicago is a team that relies on its run game to generate offense. No. 93 will need to wreak havoc from the opening kick to disrupt the early-down carries by Montgomery and make Trubisky uncomfortable with third and long situations. If the interior of the Black and Gold's defensive line can accomplish that, it is a good recipe for success against the Bears.
WILD-CARD X-FACTOR: WR MARQUEZ CALLAWAY
New Orleans' wide receiver health in 2020 has seen better days. Throughout the season, New Orleans has been without Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Tre'Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, and Deonte Harris. Headed into Sunday's battle with Chicago, it appears the Saints will have four of those five previously mentioned receivers, excluding only Tre'quan Smith, who is on Injured Reserve.
Amid the injuries, multiple Saints have found opportunities to build trust and gain chemistry with future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees. The most notable wide-out to do so? UDFA Marquez Callaway. The Tennessee product started 3 games for the Bayou Boys in 2020, registering 21 receptions for 213 yards.
New Orleans will have a mostly-healthy offensive arsenal in the playoffs. A few players may sneak under the radar in games. Who better to post an under the radar performance than a player who has been just that this season. Callaway will be the Saints' #3 receiver today and should have plenty of one-on-one matchups with Thomas, Sanders, and Kamara receiving the most attention.
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