Saturday, January 19, 2019

No time to chicken out now

"Oh my god, antenna, what do you want!" 

This was me shouting like an idiot at some point during that abysmal first quarter last weekend.  The Saints and their fans were experiencing a worst case scenario so extravagant in scope it seemed almost purposeful. They had turned the ball over on their first play. They had quickly fallen behind by two touchdowns as the offense stumbled over itself, defenders seemed to lose the ball in the Superdome lights, and possibly the team's top (or at least its number 1-A) defensive lineman was lost to a torn Achilles tendon. Also the TV kept losing the signal.

Dumaine street tailgate

Admittedly it's hard to know what to expect when you're trying to watch the game from the back of a pickup truck in the middle of Dumaine Street which is exactly what we were doing that afternoon for... some reason. We didn't buy the playoff tickets this year and, well, we had to go somewhere so why not this?  The playoffs are supposed to be a new experience anyway; unfamiliar, more intense. Nobody knows what to expect. Sometimes things happen that you aren't prepared for and adjustments need to be made on the fly.

That is precisely what happened to the Saints as well as to us during that first quarter. The team was grasping for answers and so were we.  Our solution to the antenna problem started to take shape when a ladder was added to the truck bed to try and get it a little more elevated. But it wasn't finalized until it was decided what the antenna actually wanted was a piece of chicken.  After that the picture cleared up just fine.  This was also the point where things started to fall into place for the Saints. This is most likely a coincidence.

Chicken antenna

Happy Birthday Drew Brees

The best quarterback we're ever likely to see in a Saints uniform turned 40 this week. On Sunday, he celebrated by badly underthrowing Ted Ginn on the Saints' first play from scrimmage.  He also celebrated by directing a 92 (112? 117? reports differ) yard drive that essentially won the game.  But even that drive included another cringe inducing underthrow.

Sunday night, he continued celebrating.
The party was attended by many of Brees' Saints teammates, coach Sean Payton and celebrities such as Keegan-Michael Key and New Orleans rapper Choppa, who performed the "Choppa Style" remix he recorded specifically for Brees' birthday — first debuted by The Advocate on Friday. You can see footage of Choppa's performance below, via Saints wide receiver Austin Carr's Instagram Story.
I really think the Advocate missed a trick here by not sending Nell Nolan.

As for Choppa, boy that guy does not miss an opportunity to milk a moment for all it is worth does he?  The T-P sent a reporter to document Choppa's very long Sunday which began with a performance in Champions Square, took him all the way to Baton Rouge for a Cleo Fields fundraiser, and back to New Orleans for the Brees birthday party.  All of this is happening, more or less because of one tossed off sideline moment a few months ago.
“This was done organically,” Smith tells me in the Sprinter van later, recounting how, in a manner of weeks, a video of the Saints players dancing to “Choppa Style” in a post-game victory just popped off. Next thing they knew, the song was playing inside the Superdome as fans caught on and Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas were dancing on the sidelines. There was a spark, and then, the explosion.

“They say lightning never strikes twice,” Choppa said Sunday. “But I’m here to say, stay prepared. Embrace it. Embrace it when it’s your turn.”

And right now, it’s Choppa’s turn.
It's fun to see the way 90s era rap acts have grown into classic New Orleans standards.  Half of the  golden age Cash Money stuff, for example, may as well be Mardi Gras Mambo now. I'm pretty sure you can hire Mannie Fresh to play your kid's birthday party. On Twelfth Night this year, we saw him roll by on the Funky Uptown Krewe's streetcar. (He's in the back. Maybe you can see him here.)

Funky Uptown Krewe

The Saints' gameday staff have certainly embraced this.  Choppa Style is far from the only local favorite to waft in over the PA there. During the Carolina game, I even caught a few seconds of MC Thick's Marrero during a timeout.  Imagine if that had somehow become this year's theme song.  I don't know if it takes the smoke and lasers quite as well.

Dammit Sheldon

This was the low point of the day by a long stretch. 
An MRI Monday morning revealed Sheldon Rankins tore his Achilles against the Eagles Sunday (Jan. 13), and the New Orleans Saints defensive tackle will have surgery this week according to a league source.
Cam Jordan is a great player. Marshon Lattimore has stretches where he performs like a great player. Demario Davis has had a great season.  But it's not a stretch to say that Sheldon has had the best season of all of them.  8 sacks from an interior lineman is superstar level performance and indicative of the quickness and disruption he brings to a defense that finished 2nd in the league against the run as well. This is the best defense in the NFL's final four and Sheldon Rankins is a huge reason for that.  When he went down early in a game the Saints already trailed in, we could not have felt worse.

Except that we can feel worse when we think about how serious an injury like that can be to a player who relies on a quick step and lateral reactive movements.  It's why we were skeptical of the Manti Te'o signing a couple of years back.  Te'o actually panned out credibly well considering.  But he hasn't become a full time starter much less the young star he had been prior to his injury.  Hopefully Sheldon can recover too. But can he ever be as good as the player he had become in 2018?

Dammit Peat

Hey internet users, lay off of Andrus Peat already.  The dude is trying to gut it out with one hand.
In the New Orleans Saints win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round, Peat struggled at times as a hand injury impacted his performance. He had four penalties, two holdings and two false starts, but after the game, his teammates were impressed by his gutty performance.

“He’s a fighter,” left tackle Terron Armstead said of Peat. “A lot of guys on our team, that’s just what we do. That’s how we’re made. He’s not somebody that’s going to speak on it or look for sympathy. Whatever he’s dealing with, he’ll fight.”

Peat broke his right hand in Week 17 against the Carolina Panthers, and during the bye week, he underwent surgery, according to sources. Peat had a cast on his right hand when he walked through the locker room during media availability on Wednesday or Thursday of the bye week, and in Sunday’s game against the Eagles, he had a thick wrap on his hand for the game and a bandage over the incision after the game.
Remember how relieved everybody was that the Saints would have an extra week to rest after clinching home field early?  Yeah that's not working out as fantastic as it could have.  Peat got hurt in a meaningless game many other starters were held out of. That week Sean Payton complained to the press that NFL rosters were too small.  He knew he couldn't protect everybody he would have liked.  Some guys had to play.  Peat was one of them. The Saints have the best offensive line in football when everyone is healthy.  That's hardly been the case at all this year outside of like five or ten minutes. The fact that they've battled through it as well as they have is remarkable.  They've got to do it for two more "fucking games" though.

How the Eagles game was won

A lot of attention has been given to the way it ended.  And a fair amount of attention has been given to the thousand yard drive.  But the moment that really solidified my confidence was another sequence that has gotten some attention.
They committed four penalties on the drive, if you include the holding call on the punt return that made them start at their own 8-yard line. And one of those -- a holding call against left guard Andrus Peat -- nullified a potential 46-yard TD pass from backup QB Taysom Hill to running back Alvin Kamara.

Brees also missed on a potential 46-yard TD pass to Hill one play earlier. And the Saints also got backed up by a phantom holding call against center Max Unger that made the Superdome erupt in anger when they showed the replay on the big screen.
Yeah, people were upset about seeing Taysom barely miss throwing a touchdown one play after barely having missed catching a touchdown.  But this is when it clicked for me.

I was thinking back to the Saints' regular season blowout of the Eagles. That week, Peter King wrote a behind-the-scenes story about the Saints' preparation for that game.  King describes a play the Saints ended up running in the game where they lined up with no quarterback.  Taysom Hill and Drew Brees were split to either side before Taysom eventually motioned to behind center to take the snap.  I don't think the play produced much. But the point was to cause the Eagles a moment of panic. I know it cracked me up when I saw it.   Here is King's description of how that play came to be. 
In the wide hallway outside Salon II, I asked Payton: “How’d you think of the double-bunch play?”

“Thursday night,” Payton said. “Just doodling. Just thinking. I just thought of it, and I said to the coaches, ‘Will this work?’ And [quarterbacks coach] Joe Lombardi said, ‘Why not? We can do anything we want.’ When I told Troy Aikman about it [in the FOX production meeting], he said, ‘Who’s getting the snap?’ I said, ‘No one. Yet.’ “

Payton thought for a minute, giving a John Nash look into the distance. “Part of it, really, is thinking of something that they [the Eagles] haven’t seen. That’s the job of a game-planner. You want eight heads to turn to [smart Eagles veteran safety] Malcolm Jenkins and be like, ‘What do we do?’ “
And that has been the Saints' attitude when it comes to Taysom.  They think they can do anything they want. Or, at least, they want to make sure opponents believe they think they can do anything they want.  That's where the Taysom plays really do their damage. They instill a fear that anything can happen.

Sure it's also good that Hill makes plays through his own athleticism. But mostly he is there so the Saints can fuck with people.  On Sunday, the Saints demonstrated to the Eagles that Hill might get behind their whole defense and score one play before they demonstrated that he might just throw a 46 yard touchdown.  It doesn't matter that the play didn't count. In a way, it was better. It made the methodical slow death the Eagles endured for the rest of the drive even more agonizing.

How else the game was won

None of this is to say that it wasn't also the chicken.  We do know these facts.  Before there was a sacrificial chicken thigh on the antenna ladder, the Eagles went up 14-0 and eliminated the Saints' best defensive player.  After the chicken went up, the score was 20-0 Saints. Also we should point out for Saints fans with longer memories that, if the chicken theory is valid, it is not the first time the Eagles have been defeated in the playoffs by Popeyes.

But, as much as we would love to credit the chicken altar, the fact is the Saints just did again what this Saints team has done all year.  They never panicked and fought through a tough game against a physical opponent.


Which brings us to... who is this week's opponent, again?  Do we have a playoff history with this team?

Holy crap what are we gonna do with ourselves?

The 2018 Saints have been the best team of the Sean Payton era. I will hear no arguments against this. They have been the smartest, toughest, and strongest overall Saints team I've ever watched. There have been some dramatic games, as there always are. And there have been games we knew would be close. But there hasn't been a moment this season when we've felt like they were going into a game overmatched.  It's been a very easy and confident time to be a fan.

Until this week.

Who ⚜️   t

Everybody is excited. But I wondered the other night if the missing D and A here represent Sheldon's Achilles and Peat's hand.  Also, this week, the hits have kept coming.
The Saints will play without wide receiver Keith Kirkwood as he’s been ruled out after missing a third straight day of practice with a calf injury. He had two catches for eight yards and scored the team’s first touchdown against the Eagles last weekend.

Tight end Benjamin Watson is listed as questionable, but is reportedly set to miss the game due to appendicitis. Watson has been in the hospital and PFT learned, via a source, that he does not require surgery at this time
Meanwhile every story about this also notes, as if mocking, "the Rams report no injuries."  So for the first time this entire season, I'm starting to worry.  Maybe that's well founded. Or maybe it's just the moment.

The last time the Saints played in an NFC Championship, it was the most uniquely terrifying football game I've ever experienced. It was like very much wanting to die but getting steadily angrier that we might not be allowed to. I remember a little bit about Garrett Hartley setting up for his kick. And I do remember what was going on a minute or so after. But I swear I must have blacked out while that ball was in the air. I'm not sure I've ever fully processed it.

Anyway, here we are nine years (!) later and somehow still not dead. After 2009, we were certain we'd never have to worry so much about this stuff anymore. The task was done. We had won football.  But this week, we're right back into feeling like things suddenly matter again.  Primarily it matters that we all get to go to Atlanta for two weeks where, ideally, we'd face off with the only other fan base in America who will never shut the hell up about 28-3. That seems important.

It's strange to want things again. But it's also risky. And that, more than the injury situation, is probably what has us the most worried. So what to do in a time of uncertainty but fall back on our superstitions?  I've been given to understand that the chicken has been preserved.. and perhaps epoxied, even, in order that we may bring it back to the street in case that helps.  But I suspect that may only work against the Eagles.  Luckily, I have a few backup notions.

I've mentioned these before but here is the recap. In January we noted the Vatican's Tricentennial gift to the city commemorated Pope John Paul's 1987 visit to New Orleans.  That may not seem like much but some of the old folks still believe the Papal blessing that year finally broke the "curse" of the Girod Street cemetery. The 1987 Saints went on the become the first Saints team in 21 years to post a winning season and playoff appearance.

We have also noted a few times this season that the brake tags for 2018-19 are black and gold.

Brake tag 19

That color tag was last valid as the Saints were preparing to make their 2009 title run.

Black and Gold Brake tag

Finally, and, yes we have mentioned this one before too, there was the return of the serval.  The mysterious African wildcat spotted in Metairie this season, had only previously appeared to us in, yep, 2009.

Hey maybe all this is nonsense. But, really, it's all we have at this point. Besides what else is football for, anyway?  What would it hurt to find the serval and have him lead the team out of the tunnel on Sunday.  His name is Cezar. That sounds appropriate to the arena, doesn't it?  Almost as appropriate as Valerio... hey what would it hurt to find the serval and have him lead the team out of the tunnel riding on the back of a jaguar?  Oh wait.... hey what if the serval came riding on the back of a jaguar riding on the back of Taysom Hill..... Get me Sean Payton on the phone. We can do anything we want, right?

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