Plain and simple, the Saints were caught sleeping against a dangerous a Redskins team in a late-season trap. Out-motivated against Joe Gibbs' playoff-eliminated squad, the Saints were nevertheless rewarded for their subpar effort with an NFC South championship.
With Atlanta's (7-7) loss on Thursday night to the Cowboys and Carolina's (6-8) embarrassment against the Steelers, the Saints still have an insurmountable lead in the NFC South with two weeks to go.
Still, the Saints have one prize left to be one. The Bears (12-2) claimed the top seed in the NFC playoff bracket, but the Saints still need to outrace Dallas and Seahawks for the #2 seed and a week off after Week 17. Even if the Saints end the season on a three-game losing streak, they can still theoretically claim the #2 seed with a 9-7 record.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Saints found themselves outefforted in Sunday's lackluster loss to the Redskins. QB Jason Campbell, making only his fifth career start, directed an ultra-conservative offensive attack for a game-opening drive into the Saints' red zone. In what would become a repeating theme, the Saints defense gave up chunks of yardage but managed to stiffen in time to prevent the Redskins from punching it into the end zone. In fact, three separate red zone entries by the Redskins resulted in zero touchdowns.
The Redskins went up 10-0 with a fantastic catch by Antwan Randle El, who went up for the ball and came down between Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas for a 31-yard touchdown near the end of the first quarter. The score was set up by a 44-yard catch and run by Redskins TE Chris Cooley, who caught a 10-yard pass over the middle and turned it downfield before being shoved out of bounds from behind by Jason Craft.
After two punts, the Saints got a drive going in response and spent over seven minutes on a thirteen play drive. Two first down completions to Marques Colston and a 20-yard catch and smash by Deuce McAllister on third and nine to the Redskin four. Then, McAllister punched it into the end zone after unsuccessful two dives with a sweep to the left. McAllister scored his tenth touchdown of the season and jogged into the front corner of the end zone to make the score 10-7.
The Redskins added another Shaun Suisham field goal in the middle of the second, and were on their way to more points before time ran out in the half when RB Ladell Betts failed to get out of bounds after catching a dumpoff pass.
The Saints opened their first possession of the second half with a three and out, featuring a drop by the usually perfect Marques Colston. A microcosm of the Saints' day, the Saints just didn't seem to be in synch on offense, while the Redskins didn't make much of an offensive show either. Betts collected 112 yards of rushing on 22 carries. Most of the yards came on big chunks, as he was dropped four times for no gain. Former Falcon and current Redskin backup TJ Duckett collected 18 yards on four carries.
Passers Jason Campbell and Drew Brees exchanged off-target throws, crafty scrambles and off-target deep passes. At one point, Brees completed a houdini shovel pass to a diving Billy Miller for a key first down. But officials ruled after Gibbs challenged that a scrambling, falling Brees had run three yards past the line of scrimmage.
It was one of Miller's better plays of the day, which started with a pair of nine-yard completions, and virtually ended in the first quarter when Miller was called for two false starts in three plays. Miller was looked at once for the rest of the game, another contributing factor to the Saints' offensive woes. Already without Ernie Conwell, the Saints had only Miller and rarely used and inexperienced journeyman John Owens active.
While Campbell didn't commit any turnovers, Brees was picked off when Devery Henderson didn't come back for a deep ball and was intercepted by CB Carlos Rogers at the Redskin 35. Henderson dropped a deep ball early in the second quarter when the ball fell out of his grasp as Redskins S Sean Jones grappled for the ball. The speedster from LSU finished with two catches for 20 yards.
That interception ended the Saints' second to last possession. After the Redskins climbed to 16-10 lead in a battle of field goals, Brees had one final shot to draw "M-V-P" cheers from the crowd with a drive that began after a 28-yard Michael Lewis kick return to the Saint 38. Brees passed 11 times in the final 4:09, including nine straight, as the Saints moved down to the Washington 16. But on 4th and seven, with all of Brees' weapons on the field in five wide formation, his pass to Terrance Copper in the end zone was broken up by Rogers. The Redskins sideline erupted, having clinched a mostly academic victory over a playoff-bound Saints team.
Credit highly paid defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for stifling a Saints passing attack that is tops in the league. But it was not all scheme- the Saints were beaten handily at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Regularly, the Saints' defensive line was dominated by a Redskins line missing starter Jon Jansen. The Saints offensive line allowed their 16th and 17th sacks of the season and regularly allowed the Redskins to pressure Brees from the edge.
Betts and Campbell weren't prolific in the red zone, but didn't make many mistakes. Betts' biggest blunder came when Josh Bullocks delivered a well-aimed body blow after Rogers' interception, shooting the ball free. But this break wouldn't go the Saints' way, as Randy Thomas was the first to jump on the ball and Redskins WR Antwan Randle El came up with the ball in the pile. The drive culminated in the Redskins' final field goal.
RB Deuce McAllister was held to 48 yards on 15 carries and one 20-yard catch while Reggie Bush fell far from his last two performances with twelve touches for 32 yards. Colston, rekindling his rookie of the year campaign with seven catches for 84 yards, led the team in receptions while Terrance Copper added three catches for 38 yards, all for first downs. Colston has 66 catches on the season following today's performance, and went over 1000 yards on the season with a seven yard catch in the final drive.
Notes: Brees broke the team record for season passing yardage last week and now has 4240 yards, outpacing all his NFL competition but making Dan Marino's record of 5084 yards too far out. Brees needs 844 yards in two games, an unlikely request even in this remarkable season. He is still likely to set a new team mark for completions, needing only 28 more to tie Jim Everett's 1994 record... Bush set the NFL record for receptions by a rookie, adding five catches for a season total of 84. The dynamic rookie has at least three catches in each game so far, and eight with five or more catches. He needs only ten more receptions in two games to tie Joe Horn's twice-set franchise record for receptions in a season... Horn joined S Omar Stoutmire on the inactives list...
Playoff implications: Even if the Saints lose their final two games and finish at 9-7, it's possible that they could still clinch the #2 NFC playoff seed. The Saints are sitting pretty- they own heads-up tiebreakers against Dallas and Philadelphia, currently the third and fifth seeded teams.
Seattle, the fourth seeded team, didn't play the Saints so the next tiebreaker is conference record. The Seahawks have a conference record of 6-5, and with two games left the Saints' 8-2 conference record is insurmountable. So the Saints could tie any of those three teams in outright record and still win the #2 overall seed.
The Saints can clinch the #2 playoff seed and a first round bye with a victory in New York on Christmas Eve, and a Dallas loss to Philadelphia on Christmas Day.