The 2020 NFL regular season is officially in the books. Even though it has had more hiccups than most seasons, it still seems to have come-and-gone just as fast as the others. Every game that was scheduled to be played eventually was, even if a couple were postponed and a few games featured depleted position groups due to COVID-19. Players, coaches, fans, and everyone else involved has made it through the season, and many are onto the first playoff slate featuring an expanded field.
Directly affected by the new playoff rules are, of course, your New Orleans Saints, who finished as the number-two seed in the NFC this season with a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. Any other year, the Saints would be given a BYE week to begin the playoffs, with a guaranteed home playoff game in the Divisional Round after the four Wild Card teams battle it out. Instead, with seven teams making the playoffs in each conference instead of six, only the number-one seed gets a BYE week while the other six squads go head-to-head this Wild Card Weekend. That includes New Orleans, who will finish for the fourth season in a row with 11+ wins and a division title without a single playoff BYE.
To make things even more interesting, the Saints get to host the Bears, a team they nearly lost to on the road in Week 8. The Saints won with a minute left in overtime, 26-23, with a healthy Drew Brees throwing the ball. Both Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were out and both are expected to play this Sunday, so that combined with home-field advantage makes this a slightly better matchup on paper for New Orleans. They open up as 9.5 favorites, the largest for any Wild Card game this season, but it will still be a tough battle. The Saints have had many heartbreaking playoff losses, especially as of late, and need to bring everything they have to avoid another one this season. Here are the most important keys to victory for the Saints.
This is the most obvious, and most important, factor going into Sunday’s game. The team is coming off a season that saw Thomas and Brees, who connected for a record 146 completed passes in 2019, only play together for six quarters. Thomas has dealt with a multitude of injuries and was suspended for one game; Brees was put on IR in the middle of the season with 11 cracked ribs (!!) and a collapsed lung. The Saints offense just isn’t the same without those two connecting, especially when the number-two option in Emmanuel Sanders also missed multiple games due to injury. Every single receiver in the Saints Week 1 rotation missed multiple games, including All-Pro Deonte Harris (7), rookie stud Marquez Callaway (5), and usually-reliable veteran Tre’Quan Smith (2).
On the defensive side of the ball, key players in Sheldon Rankins, Patrick Robinson, and Marcus Davenport all missed at least four games in 2020, and starting safety Marcus Williams is currently dealing with an ankle sprain that caused him to miss the final two games. And now, offensive guard Nick Easton, who started nine games for the Saints this season, has been placed on IR and will miss a majority of the playoffs depending on how far New Orleans gets. Luckily, it seems as though all the other injured players mentioned above are going to be good to go Sunday in New Orleans. For Chicago, health could be a big factor for them as well: tackling-machine Roquan Smith is dealing with an elbow injury, while rookie studs in WR Darnell Mooney (ankle) and CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) are currently uncertain for Sunday’s game. If even one of those players misses the contest, it will greatly help the Saints; but everyone should be hoping for as healthy of a roster for both sides.
There’s only one other issue that has recently plagued the Saints like it has many other teams: COVID-19 exposure. The entire RB corps for New Orleans missed their Week 17 finale at Carolina due to star Alvin Kamara testing positive for the virus. His close contact with the other backs forced them to have to sit out, so the Saints had to rely on WR/RB hybrid Ty Montgomery, rookie Tony Jones Jr, and backup QB Taysom Hill to run the rock. They still won 33-7, but that was against a wavering 5-10 Panthers team. Kamara will need to be asymptomatic for 5 days and test negative two days in a row before he can return to play. That timeline fits perfectly for New Orleans, who will have Kamara back if he does indeed meet that criteria. However, it’s no guarantee at this point, and even missing backup RB Latavius Murray could hurt the Saints in a more major way than most think.
In-game health is important as well, as many Saints offensive linemen have left games early due to injuries. Protecting Brees and his ribs is uber important, so hopefully everything goes well Sunday afternoon. As long as the Saints are healthy, they have more than a great shot at defeating Chicago easily.
Shutting Down Allen Robinson
Someone, please pay this man! Allen Robinson has been a phenomenal receiver in the NFL ever since he was drafted, and he’s done it without having a premier quarterback. When you’re one of only three players in 15 seasons, with the other two receivers are DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown, to accomplish a feat, you are the elite of the elite.
Only WRs w/ 150+ targets and 1 drop in a season since 2006
🔹 Allen Robinson (’20)
🔹 DeAndre Hopkins (’20)
🔹 Antonio Brown (’18) pic.twitter.com/0YtLN5JYTn
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 4, 2021
Robinson has amassed 1,250 yards off 101 catches this season, his third 1,200+ yard season of his career and second in a row. The 27-year old did this despite a quarterback carousel in Chicago. Both Nick Foles and Mitchel Trubisky spent significant time throwing the ball to Allen, and he caught just about every pass that was in his reach. This includes a seven-catch, 87-yard, and one-touchdown performance against the Saints in Week 8 of this season. Very impressive performance against the team who finished 5th in pass defense. Robinson also had an 8 catch, 74-yard game with two touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers’ 7th best pass defense back in Week 12.
Overall, Robinson may be the most complete receiver in the NFL. He has the size (6’2”, 215 pounds), crisp short-and-intermediate route-running, fantastic separation skills, and some of the best-contested catching ability the NFL has seen this century. He’s beat teams deep plenty of times before as well, including his 24-yard touchdown grab against the Saints. With Janoris Jenkins having up-and-down play, and Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore looking to be a step behind many times this season, New Orleans is going to need a lot of safety help to try and contain Allen. That means Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Williams, or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are probably going to need to help double-team Robinson for a lot of the game. This may open the door for other stuff receivers in Mooney (if healthy) or Anthony Miller to make plays, but that is still a better situation for the Saints than watching Robinson go off.
Winning the Trenches
This is a key to winning every game, but especially one featuring a couple of stout running offenses and defensive front-sevens. Chicago’s up-and-coming RB David Montgomery finished fourth in the NFL in 2020 total rushing yards with 1,001. The rest of the team wasn’t able to muster up even 700 more yards on the ground, so Montgomery will be a focus for the Saints as the second-year back makes his playoff debut. Meanwhile, the Saints of course have star RB Kamara coming out of the backfield in a season which saw him amass 1,688 yards from scrimmage, 932 of which came on the ground. With the help of Murray, Hill, and Montgomery (in the finale), the Saints finished 6th in total rushing yards (2,265) in 2020.
Another advantage for the Saints: the Bears gave up the 17th most sacks in the league (36) while the Saints ranked 12th (29). Of course, the Saints’ number might have been higher had mobile QB Hill not played in 3.5 games, but the difference is still glaring. In their Week 8 matchup, the Saints got to Foles five times while Brees was only sacked by Chicago once the entire game. With that being said, defensively is where Chicago can compete, especially upfront. They finished 9th in rush yards per carry (4.1), tied for second (with New Orleans) in rushing touchdowns given up with 11, and finished with the 6th least-longest rushing play given up all season (37 yards). The Saints had a better overall rush defense, though, which has become a staple for this team. What Chicago might be able to exploit: forced fumbles. They finished in the top-10, and forced three against the Saints back in November (none recovered).
The Saints have clear advantages on both sides of the ball when it comes to the trenches. They have the better offensive line, superior LB corps, and have better rushing defense and sack numbers than Chicago on the defensive line. They also have the better offensive line, and they will need to be on their A-game come Sunday to protect Brees to their fullest extent. If the 2020 season trends hole true, the Saints should have no issue winning the battles in the trenches and taking this home victory.