NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The sights of defensive end Cameron Jordan celebrating multiple sacks and Marshon Lattimore trotting triumphantly into the end zone with the ball in his hands were reminiscent of playoff seasons in the New Orleans Saints’ recent past.
The Saints seem to have recaptured the ability to not only string together victories, but also to do so in difficult circumstances — be it in freezing weather in Cleveland or against one of the NFL’s top teams in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, it happened a little too late. The Saints were eliminated from the playoffs not long after winning their third straight game and fourth in their last six.
But for Saints first-year coach Dennis Allen and his staff, better late than never.
“There was a lot of change,” Allen said Monday. “I’m in a new role. I’ve got some assistant coaches in a new role. We brought in some new players. We’ve had a lot of injuries in a lot of different positions.
“It’s taken a little bit of time, but that’s why you have something you believe in and you stick with it and you keep grinding and you keep working,” Allen continued. “We’re seeing some of the fruits of that labor now.”
The Saints entered Week 17 without a victory over a team that currently has a winning record. But on Sunday, they went on the road and beat a Philadelphia team that entered the contest with a 13-2 record. The Eagles played without starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, but the Hurts-less Eagles also scored 34 points in a 6-point loss at playoff bound Dallas on Dec. 24.
Back home against New Orleans, that same Eagles’ offense was largely stifled — held to 10 points in a 10-point loss.
The Saints’ offense possessed the ball for 37 minutes of the game. And while that unit was shut out in the second half, it put together three scoring drives in the first, which might have been enough even without Lattimore’s pick-6.
The Saints now have a chance to finish out their second-straight non-playoff season on a four-game winning streak. And while that’s not meaningful in the context of the postseason, it could mean a lot in terms of how the organization approaches the offseason.
After all, the Saints looked ripe for an emotional letdown after blowing a 13-point lead — not to mention their last, best chance to climb back into the playoff race — in the last four minutes of a crucial loss at Tampa Bay one month ago. Instead, all New Orleans has done since is win.
“I wish we’d have taken advantage of a couple opportunities that we had” earlier this season, Allen said. “There’s nothing that can be done about that now. So, how do we learn that lesson, so that as we progress and go in the future, we don’t put ourselves in those situations again?
“You can learn a lot from your failures — as much as you can from successes.”
The Saints’ defense has held seven straight opponents to 20 or fewer points. None of the Saints’ previous five opponents have scored more than 18 points and three have been held below 14 — including playoff-bound San Francisco, which scored only one TD while defeating New Orleans 13-0 at home.
“The resume speaks for itself in terms of what Saints defenses have been able to do going all the way back to ’17 and through now,” said Allen, who was Sean Payton’s defensive coordinator for six-plus seasons before his promotion after Payton’s retirement. “We felt like we were going to be one of the better defenses in our league and we got one more game to go out and try to prove it.”
The Saints ranked ninth in the NFL in yards allowed per game entering Monday and have finished each of the past two seasons ranked in the top 10.
The Saints’ pass protection struggled mightily in Philadelphia, giving up seven sacks of Andy Dalton.
Lattimore returned from a 10-week absence and sealed the victory at Philadelphia with his interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter — the highlight of his game-long contributions to one of the best defensive performances of the season by New Orleans.
Reserve offensive linemen Calvin Throckmorton and Landon Young each allowed a pair of sacks against the Eagles, although they were in a tough spot as backups against arguably the best pass rush in the NFL.
Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk has a hip injury that took him out of Sunday’s game. It’s unclear whether safety Marcus Maye (shoulder) and left guard Andrus Peat (ankle) will be ready to return from injuries that sidelined them at Philadelphia.
115 1/2 — The Saints franchise record for sacks in a career, set by Jordan on Sunday when he passed the previous mark of 115 set in 1993 by Hall of Fame outside linebacker and edge rusher Rickey Jackson.
Close out the regular season at home on Sunday against Carolina in a game with no playoff implications for either team. The Saints will look to avoid their first 10-loss season since 2005.
(Story via The Associated Press)