December 6, 2009

Big-play Meachem, Saints disarm the Redskins' trap in hard-fought 33-30 overtime thriller; NFC South clinched

The Saints entered the game with their regular placekicker John Carney in street clothes and the strong-legged youngster Garrett Hartley in uniform. An ironic and perfectly timed switch, as no game this season will have been more important for placekicking.

Hartley hit field goals of 34, 27, 28 and finally 18 yards to clinch a most improbable win for the Saints in what was a serious trap game for their home field advantage bid. Hartley's only miss was a 57-yard prayer as regulation expired, a knuckleball that fell short of the crossbars. He even nailed the game-winning field goal twice after a timeout was burned to ice him.

The game in many ways resembled the Saints' win in Miami earlier this season. Down early, the Saints staged several mini-comebacks, with inspired play by QB Drew Brees and some huge plays by a defense who was beaten but never defeated. The Saints never led in Washington until the game was won midway through overtime.

The Saints closed gaps to tie the game down 10-0, 17-10, and 20-30. No player on the Saints' offense was more critical to the Saints' success than third year wide receiver Robert Meachem.

Meachem closed each half with titanic plays to swing momentum and tie the game, a performance that should complete his emergence as big-time NFL player. Once a late-first round disappointment, Meachem has blossomed into a fountain of game-changing plays.

Meachem's first score of the day was as crazy as a play as Sportscenter has ever seen.

Brees' pumped twice, faded in the pocket, stiff-armed and avoided a diving pass rusher and throw a pass over the middle into double coverage for Jeremy Shockey. Falling backwards and throwing with only his shoulder, Brees had the pass sail short and three players dove for it: Shockey, Redskins defensive backs LaRon Landry and Kareem Moore.

Moore came up with an athletic, rolling interception over the back of Landry, got up, and started running. Meachem fought through a block by Reed Doughty as blockers ran ahead of Moore, who ran for his left sideline. Meachem met Moore, spun him and ripped the ball free with his left arm. The ball popped right into Meachem's hands, who caught it in stride and raced untouched through 44 yards of untouched field for a game-tying fumble return touchdown with :22 left in the first half. It took several minutes of replay review to scrutinize the results and rule that Moore had not been touched by Shockey.

Meachem's heads-up play turned a 17-10 lead that might have been worse at halftime into a 17-17 locker room tie. He lead all receivers with ten passes thrown his way, eight receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown, not including a 44-yard fumble return.

Then with 97 seconds left in the game and down by a touchdown, Meachem would again answer the call for a big play. A seam route up the right hashes was made possible by an inside juke in Meachem's route, which LaRon Landry bit hard on. Meachem accelerated upfield past the flat-footed Landry as Brees pumped, stepped up and fired to a wide-open Meachem, who caught the beautifully-thrown pass in stride and blasted through a tackle shove from Moore into the end zone. That play tied the score at 30-30.

The Saints lost the overtime toss but another big play awaited them in overtime. Three plays into their drive, Campbell completed his 30th pass on an outlet to Mike Sellers, who was blasted and upended by veteran cornerback Chris McAlister, signed only 17 days ago off the street. The ball came loose and was picked up by McAlister, but the head linesman ruled Sellers down by contact. The Redskins nearly ran another play, but Sean Payton called a timeout, giving the officials time to initiate a booth review. Sellers' was ruled to have fumbled the ball before his upended elbow hit the ground, and the Saints were awarded possession based on a new change in the rule that allows officials to change position even in the case of a fumble blown dead on the field, a change initiated by this controversial 2008 play.

The Saints took possession at the Redskin 37 and methodically picked the Washington defense apart with three prime Brees passes to the 14 yard line. On first down, the Saints lined up to kick a field goal, and Redskins head coach Jim Zorn called a timeout. The Saints put their offense back off the field and instead, ran the ball three straight times with closer Mike Bell. Payton made the Redskins waste a timeout at the end of the fourth quarter as well, putting his offense back on the field for a quick pass instead of kicking again. Bell reached just inches short of the goal line.

Hartley converted the 18 yard chip shot only to have the Redskins nullify the play by calling time out. Hartley lined up and nailed the field goal again for the win. A big time performance in his first game of 2009 for the young kicker, who may have ended John Carney's second Saint tour of duty with his performance today.

For a team used to jumping on their opponents in the third quarter, the second half began oddly for the Saints. The Redskins went on a four minute, 10-play drive for a field goal to put them up 20-17, and the Saints moved to the Washington 43 before being stuffed by DT Albert Haynesworth on third and short and again on fourth and inches. The Redskins quickly broke a 17-17 halftime tie with a field goal and then pushed the lead back to 10 with a Jason Campbell touchdown pass.

In the middle of the third quarter, Redskins QB Jason Campbell was 20/30 for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Brees was 15/23 for 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception (that was turned into a touchdown).

For the rest of the game through overtime, Campbell would complete 10 of 12 passes, but for only 113 yards and in the process, lead his team to only three points while also throwing a crucial late interception. To counter, Brees would hit 20 of his next 26 passes for 249 yards, another touchdown and 16 more points, including the game winning field goal in overtime.

Campbell was methodical, completing many high-percentage passes and several downfield as the Saints' struggled on defense. Down their top three cornerbacks (Porter, Greer and Gay) and playing their first frigid game of the season, the Saints tackled poorly on defense. That was never more evident on this play, when Devin Thomas evaded three Saints tacklers to tiptoe into the end zone.

Second-year Thomas ripped the Saints, beating rookie corner Malcolm Jenkins and others to catch all seven passes thrown his way for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Redskins TE Fred Davis, former teammate of Reggie Bush and Sedrick Ellis at USC, had a big first half, catching five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. But the Saints shut Davis down in the second half, not allowing another catch.

On the play just before Devin Thomas' third quarter touchdown catch-and-run, Malcolm Jenkins dropped a pick-six that hit in him in the chest. 14 point swing there. Thomas dodged two Saint defensive backs and a linebacker to tiptoe into the end zone and a 10-point Washington lead. The Saints then picked up a field goal but entered the fourth quarter down 27-20.

The Saints entered the game clearly wanting to set up the run game with the pass. The Saints ran numerous screen plays, but weren't able to catch traction with Pierre Thomas at runningback. The Saints found themselves down and ended up losing their potent balance, throwing 23 times to 10 carries in the first half and in the second half, the Saints threw the ball 26 times to 14 carries.

Brees passed Archie Manning for the team record in touchdown passes in the second quarter, finding QB Marques Colston wide open down the left seam to tie the game 10-10. That was Brees' 116th TD pass. The team record is held by Aaron Brooks, whose record of 120 TD passes could be smashed next week in Atlanta.

Its a tough game for Washington, who got two really bad breaks in the game: a missed short field goal by their own kicker, Scott Suisham, inside of two minutes that would have buried the Saints. The kick sailed wide right from only 23 yards away.

In overtime, the reply reversal on Mike Sellers' fumble was also key, though the Saints ran seven more plays before kicking the game-winning field goal (twice). No one play can point to the Redskins' loss, a team that has lost six games by a touchdown or less this season.

The Saints have clinched the NFC South by virtue of their victory, but actually had clinched the division title before the end game when Atlanta lost to Philadelphia. At 12-0, the Saints have long since surpassed the team records for best record and longest win streak. This is far and away the most successful Saints team through 13 weeks of the regular season.

Injuries:

Devery Henderson was slow to get up in the early second quarter after a big hit between two players on the first pass thrown his way, but later returned to the game. He finished with six catches for 61 yards.

Starting linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar left the game with an injury that was not caused by a severe chewing inflicted by Payton after a missed tackle. He was starting in place of injured LB Scott Fujita. Troy Evans entered the game in Dunbar's place.

Post-game tweets:

Anthony Hargrove wrote: "NFC South Champions...oh yeah maine how ya life can change in one yr..."

Reggie Bush wrote: "
One word: WOW!!!"

Billy Miller wrote: "
Ok now I need to ice my knee and Achilles from jumpin up and down!! NFC champs baby!!!!"

Chip Vaughn wrote: "
One word....HEART!!!"


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