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The New Orleans Saints overcame the retirement of Drew Brees, relocation by Hurricane Ida, a storm of injuries and COVID-19 losses to somehow finish within range of the NFL Playoffs on Sunday by beating Atlanta, 30-20, to finish with a 9-8 record.
But they could not stop the San Francisco 49ers from beating the Los Angeles Rams 27-24 in overtime just minutes later in Los Angeles, ending a string of four consecutive playoff appearances by the Saints.
San Francisco (10-7) reached the playoffs instead of New Orleans as the No. 6 seed and will play at No. 3 seed Dallas (12-5) on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. eastern on CBS. A 49ers’ loss would have sent the Saints as the No. 7 seed to Los Angeles (12-5), which is now the No. 4 seed and will instead host No. 5 seed Arizona (11-6) in a week at 8:15 p.m. Monday on ESPN and ABC.
Philadelphia (9-8) takes the Saints No. 7 seed and will play at No. 2 seed Tampa Bay (13-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday on FOX.
“It matters for naught,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “That stuff hurts. It’s gut-wrenching.”
Jameis Winston replaced Brees and led the Saints to a 5-2 start at quarterback before a knee injury ended his season on Oct. 31 following a horse collar tackle by Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White.
Michael Thomas, one of the top receivers in the NFL since his rookie year in 2016, missed the entire season with an ankle injury. Running back Alvin Kamara missed a month of the season with an injury, and the Saints didn’t have starting offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead with injuries for several weeks.
Because of the injuries and several players missing games with COVID-19, the Saints set an NFL record by using 58 different starting lineups throughout the season. Had the Saints made the playoffs, they would have become the first team to reach the postseason with four starting quarterbacks since Houston in 2015. The Saints started Winston, Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill and rookie Ian Book as the season wore on.
In addition, coach Sean Payton missed a game with COVID-19. Despite a depleting roster and injuries, the Saints won four of their last five games to finish 9-8.
“I’m proud of this group,” said Payton, who delivered his fifth straight winning season despite more obstacles than in any season in his head coaching career that began in New Orleans in 2006. “They fought hard. They fought hard all season.”
The Saints took a 27-13 lead with 10:55 to go in the fourth quarter on a 27-yard field goal by Brett Maher and extended that to 30-13 on a 33-yard field goal by Maher. Atlanta (7-10) scored a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes for the final.
New Orleans led 24-6 at the half on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Siemian to Juwan Johnson with two seconds left in the half. Safety Malcolm Jenkins set up the touchdown by stripping running back Mike Davis of the ball after a catch at New Orleans’ 19-yard line. Saints’ linebacker Kwon Alexander recovered and returned it eight yards to the 11.
“It’s really the dealing with reality that we won’t be able to suit up next week,” said Jenkins, who was a rookie on the Saints Super Bowl XLIV champion team in the 2009 season.
The Saints’ injury bug continued through Sunday as they lost Hill to a foot injury early in the second quarter. But Siemian, who was 0-for-4 as a starter after replacing Winston before being replaced by Hill, replaced by Hill on this day and came out firing. He threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith just three plays later for a 14-6 Saints’ lead with 5:57 to go before halftime.
Maher made it 17-6 on a 37-yard field goal with 1:03 to go before intermission.
The day started perfectly as the Rams took a 17-0 lead over the 49ers in the second quarter and were up 17-3 at the half as the Saints took the 24-6 halftime lead, thoroughly dominating the Falcons. The Rams’ comeback win from 17 points down was the second largest comeback of the 2021 season.
Again, a Saints’ season ended in bitter disappointment at the hands of the Rams. The Saints lost the NFC Championship game to the Rams 26-23 in overtime on Jan. 20, 2019, after a pass interference no-call near the goal line as the Saints and Brees threatened to win the game in regulation. It is known as the worst no-call in NFL playoff history.
“When you’re watching another team lose to not get you into the playoffs, it’s certainly a little hollow,” Siemian said.
New Orleans outgained Atlanta 242 yards to 69 in the first half and held the ball for more than 21 minutes to just over eight by the Falcons. Kamara had 75 yards on 13 carries at the break before finishing with 146 yards on 30 carries.
Hil threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Adam Trautman for a 7-0 lead midway though the first quarter for the Saints’ first touchdown of the season on their first possession of a game. That seemed like a good sign at the time. Hill completed 7 of 9 passes for 107 yards in the first half before his injury and rushed five times for 18 yards.
Siemian completed 4 of 7 passes for 22 yards with two touchdowns in the first half and finished 9-of-15 passing for 71 yards. Smith caught three passes for 55 yards in the first half and had five for 76 yards for the game.
The Saints outgained Atlanta for the game, 369 to 257.
“It’s hard when your future and your fate,” Jenkins said, “are in somebody else’s hands.”