NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints march toward Super Bowl LIII fell one step short.
After tying a franchise record with 13 regular-season wins and securing the top seed in the NFC playoffs, the Saints had the NFC Championship Game right where they wanted it – inside a raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.
They bolted to an early 13-0 lead and took a 23-20 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
But their failure to build a bigger lead when they had the opportunity in the beginning, a missed call by the officials and a couple of clutch field goals by Greg Zuerlein gave the Los Angeles Rams a 26-23 overtime victory and denied New Orleans its first trip to the Super Bowl since winning the NFL championship after the 2009 season.
“Man, there were a lot of opportunities,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
There were, but Payton and everyone else kept going back to the defensive pass interference – as well as the helmet-to-helmet violation – that wasn’t called.
The score was tied at 20 shortly after the two-minute warning and Drew Brees had just thrown a 43-yard completion to Ted Ginn Jr. to the L.A. 13. Two plays later it was third and 10 and Brees lofted a pass toward wide receiver Tommylee Lewis at the 5-yard line.
Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman barreled into Lewis before the ball arrived and his helmet made contact with Lewis’.
“I popped up looking for a little yellow flag on the field,” Lewis said. “I didn’t see one.”
Robey-Coleman also was expecting a flag that never came.
“I thought that would have been a flag,” he said, “and (the Saints) would have scored on the next play.”
They did score on the next play, but it was a field goal that came with 1:41 left and the Rams holding one time-out. Had either penalty been called the Saints could have kneeled down three times, forced the Rams to use their final time-out and kicked the go-ahead field goal with precious few seconds remaining.
Payton said he spoke shortly after the game with NFL head of officiating, who admitted the officials “blew” the call.
“It’s just hard to swallow,” Payton said. “I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call and here it is the NFC Championship Game.”
The Saints still were in position to win, but the Rams drove to Zuerlein’s tying 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in regulation.
The Saints got first crack with the ball in overtime after winning the coin toss. They got one first down before Brees got hit while passing and the ball fluttered into the hands of Rams defensive back John Johnson III at the L.A. 46.
The Rams got one first down before stalling and Zuerlein came through again, this time from 57 yards to sned L.A. to Atlanta to the Super Bowl and end the Saints season.
“There were plenty of opportunities for us offensively that we didn’t take advantage of,” Brees said.
The reached the red zone on each of the first two possessions, but settled for a field goal both times. The lead grew to 13-0 beofre the Rams settled in.
L.A. tied the game twice but never took the lead until the final play.
“We let them get close to us,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We ended up having a 13-point lead at one point in time. You can’t ever let your foot off the gas. To their credit, they fought the entire game and ended up winning.”
It marked the second consecutive Saints season that ended on the final play of a playoff game.
Last season they held a 24-23 lead in a Divisional Playoff at Minnesota before the Vikings completed a 61-yard touchdown as time expired.
That finish resulted from a defensive breakdown. Sunday’s finish was a result of clutch plays by the Rams, missed opportunities by the Saints – and the penalty call that was never made.
“Regardless of the call or no call,” Brees said, “I felt like there were other opportunities for us that I wish we could have taken advantage of.”