As we wrap up Wildcard weekend and move onto the San Francisco 49er’s first playoff game in over five years, I want to put a bow on the Minnesota Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints. No team plays a perfect game. The Vikings turned the ball over on their first possession. They played well enough to overcome that and beat the Saints in overtime. Or did they? After watching the game, the Saints couldn’t get out of their own way. I’m going to go through some of the mistakes New Orleans made to show why the Niners are seven-point favorites.
If you have 1st and goal in the playoffs, you have to score a touchdown. It’s that simple. The Saints settled for a field goal after being gifted the ball on the nine-yard line. That can’t happen. The other three teams that lost in the Wildcard round went 2 for 8 in the red zone. You’re asking for it if you let teams hang around. New Orleans also missed a field goal as time expired in the first half. So instead of going into the half up 17-13, they trailed 13-10.
The Saints’ biggest issue came on third down. New Orleans only converted 4 of 11 attempts. You’d think with that quarterback, his targets, and the play-caller, the Saints, would shred Minnesota, who was 19th in the NFL in third-down conversions on defense. Nope. The Vikings took away the routes that were run at the first down marker, and Drew Brees was forced to check the ball down underneath. There was one 3rd & 1 where Alvin Kamara lost six yards!
San Francisco has been the fourth-best team in the NFL on third downs this season. When the 49ers have been forced to throw, no team has performed better. They’re converting 45.5% of third downs through the air. That’s almost two percentage points better than second place. Who is in second you ask? The Vikings. I don’t want to call it a fluke, but San Francisco’s efficiency on third downs has been a big reason why they’ve been able to score as many points as they have during the final half of the season.
Let’s talk about the last drive and what the site decorum the Saints were doing. I’m ignoring a Brees fumble as the possession before because Danielle Hunter made a good play, and when top-tier pass rushers get close, they go for the ball. I’m not going to say that’s “luck.” It’s 1st and 10 on the Saints 30-yard line, and Brees throws a short pass to Alvin Kamara. He gains six yards, but for whatever reason, decided to cut back inside to pick up an additional two yards. That cost the team about 20 seconds on the play clock. What in the world are you doing? If you cut back inside, you better be sure you’re picking up double-digit yards. Kamara picked a terrible time to have a brain fart.
Another first down throw to Kamara, and he’s expecting to get hit and backpedals four yards as he’s bracing for contact. It was one of the more odd plays you’ll see. Generally, you’ll see a player catch the ball, turn upfield, and run. Not here. That’s another 20 seconds gone off the clock. Michael Thomas makes a great diving catch over the middle with a minute to go. Instead of either spiking the ball or using their final timeout, the Saints hurry to the line and gain 14 yards, but the clock is still running. Brees hurries to the line to spike it, but Kamara flinches, and it’s a false start. That’s a 10-second runoff. So instead of 1st & 10 with 44 seconds to go, it’s 1st & 15 with 11 seconds remaining. The Saints call a screen pass, but Minnesota sniffs it out, and New Orleans has to settle for a field goal.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a worse two-minute drive than that. Payton not using a timeout, not throwing the ball toward the sideline. Kamara with three mistakes. You name it, and it went wrong for New Orleans. One drive to end the half that had a missed field goal from a kicker that made 88% of his kicks this season, then this drive to before the game went into overtime.
Kyle Shanahan is no stranger to being criticized over clock management. It’s tough to complain about the 49ers offense in two-minute situations. Robbie Gould won the Special Teams Player of the Month in December largely because the offense took care of business toward the end of halves and games. When’s the last time San Francisco didn’t score in a two-minute situation? It feels like it’s been a while.
Take care of business
The Vikings aren’t a team you can underestimate, and Akash will have more on that later this morning. It felt like the Saints took Minnesota lightly. Kamara only had seven carries, Brees had that woefully under-thrown interception, and the Saints were unable to capitalize on great field position. Add in the fact that New Orleans lost on the 50/50 balls to Thielen, and that was the difference.
The 49ers don’t need to play out of their minds in this one. Defensively, win on early downs to get Minnesota into obvious passing situations where play-action isn’t an issue, and they’ll be fine. Offensively, exploit the Vikings back-seven with your speedy playmakers and don’t settle for field goals. Simple, right?