After a dominating performance, capped off by a 42-10 victory over the NFC South division rival Carolina Panthers these are the New Orleans Saints that earned “Game Balls” from the Saints News Network.
Smith put his name in the record books last season catching a 62-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees that made the 41-year-old QB the NFL’s All-Time Leading Passer in a matchup against Washington on Monday Night Football. However, Smith’s NFL journey has been a rocky one throughout his first two years in the league. Big play ability is a strong suit for the former UCF wideout, and he showed it multiple times in his rookie season last year. Big games against NFC East opponents Washington and Philadelphia had Who Dat Nation buzzing but injuries both last season and this season have slowed down Smith’s progression to be the Saints true number two target.
Against Carolina, Smith caught every pass thrown his way, hauling in 5 receptions for 56 yards and a second quarter score. Smith’s contributions of late have created another wrinkle to the Saints offense, as the second-year player is returning to his big play form. With four touchdowns over the last six weeks of the regular season Smith has emerged as the Saints number two wide-out and could emerge as one of Brees’ favorite down field threats in the playoffs.
Perhaps snubbed from our “Game Balls” last week was the former Panthers linebacker, A.J. Klein, who had two sacks against the Tennessee Titans en route to a 38-28 victory; but Klein made it hard to keep him off our list this week. Klein is another key contributor for the Saints defense that has missed time this season, playing in 14 of 16 games for New Orleans. When healthy Klein appears to be a perfect match with linebackers Demario Davis and Kiko Alonso, as Klein’s instincts in the running game and ability to cover backs and tight ends gives the Davis the ability to be an elite pass rusher from his line backing spot.
Returning to Bank of America Stadium was easy for the former Panther, and Klein made himself right at home intercepting his first pass since 2015, and his first as a Saint. The interception went back 14 yards for a score giving the Saints a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. Klein added 6 tackles, and a pass defended to his game totals as the Saints Line-backing corps returned to health and form in Week 17.
The “Jack Rabbit” was claimed off waivers and awarded to the Saints just a day after the Saints victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football in week 15. The Giants following an engagement with a fan via Twitter released Jenkins. The Saints claimed the 2016 Pro-Bowl selection and Jenkins found himself an opportunity to compete for a starting job on a playoff team in New Orleans.
With only two weeks under his belt as a Saint, Jenkins was asked to step into a starting role in week 17 with injuries to starting defensive backs Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, and Eli Apple. Jenkins, along with the entire Saints defense held the Panthers offense in check for all the first half and most of the afternoon, surrendering only 10 points. “Jack Rabbit” finished his first start in the black and gold with 5 tackles, 2 passes defended, and an interception in the end-zone late in the fourth quarter. Jenkins looks to continue to fight for the starting job and has the potential to be a steal for the Saints through the playoffs.
After missing 5 weeks this season, Drew Brees has not missed a beat since his return, being selected to his 13 Pro-Bowl. Since his return from a thumb injury back in week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams, Brees has thrown only 2 interceptions to his 25 touchdowns. His last interception coming 6 weeks ago in the team’s 34-31 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
In the regular season finale, Brees became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw 3 or more touchdowns and zero interceptions in four consecutive weeks. The Super Bowl XLIV MVP finished 19 of 30 for 253 yards and 3 touchdowns, while coming up just short of his own NFL record for completion percentage in a single season. Brees said he wants to be a team that is “ascending” headed into the playoffs and the Saints offense looks to be doing just that scoring 34 or more points in 5 of the last 6 games.
With a 42-10 victory against the Carolina Panthers (5-11) the New Orleans Saints finish the season 13-3, with the NFC South Crown and a date with the Minnesota Vikings on Wild Card Weekend. The Saints clinched the #3 Seed following victories by the 49ers and Packers on Sunday and will face the #6 Seeded Minnesota Vikings (10-6) on Sunday, January 5th at 12 pm CST inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
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