TAMPA, Fla. -- The New Orleans Saints may have finished with a dud in Week 17. But there might not be a single NFL player providing more fireworks heading into the new year than rookie running back Alvin Kamara.
More importantly: There might not be a bigger X factor in the entire playoff field.
That's awfully important for a Saints offense that is surprisingly still struggling to find a consistent rhythm -- especially on third downs.
Kamara can't win a game all by himself, but he came pretty darn close on Sunday with one of his best performances to date in New Orleans' 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay, as he kept trying to revive the offense on a sluggish day.
Kamara started things off with another "wow" moment -- a franchise-record 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown before the Saints had an offensive possession. He added 128 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown to finish the season with 1,901 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns.
The third-round draft pick from Tennessee joined Gale Sayers as the only rookies in NFL history with at least five rushing TDs, five receiving TDs and a kickoff return TD.
And he and veteran running back Mark Ingram became the first duo in NFL history to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same backfield.
"The production, and the way those guys compete, is significant. And you don't take it for granted. It's a big part of our team," said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose offense ranked second in the NFL with 395.7 yards per game, even though quarterback Drew Brees had his lowest total of passing yards (4,334) and passing TDs (23) in 12 seasons with the Saints.
"We're going to lean on them in the playoffs, just like we're going to lean on the rest of the starters," Payton said. "Obviously those two give us a spark in the rushing game and the receiving game."
And, apparently, the kick return game.
Kamara had not been returning kickoffs much since the first month of the season because his role expanded so much on offense. But Payton decided to reinsert Kamara into that role over the final two weeks to try and seal the division title.
It led to a 49-yard return in last week's victory over the Atlanta Falcons -- then the 106-yarder Sunday.
Kamara actually hesitated for a moment in the end zone, looking like he might take a knee, before he weaved a path through his blockers for a touchdown that looked way too easy.
Earlier this year, Kamara said he sees the field like "The Matrix" -- though his reaction was more subdued Sunday after the disappointing loss.
"Yeah, it was cool, you know," Kamara said of his first NFL kickoff return TD. "It was blocked up perfect. We worked it all week, we knew it would be open. So kudos to those guys up front blocking. I mean, my job is easy. They're the ones that gotta get up there and block and do the dirty work. So I just run."
Perhaps the most stunning (and disturbing) statistic with the Saints this season is that they rank 22nd in the NFL in third-down conversion rate at 36.8 percent -- which makes little sense considering the efficiency and explosiveness of their offense.
The Saints led the NFL in third-down conversion rate in each of the previous three seasons and five of the previous seven. And Brees set the NFL record for single-season completion percentage at 72.0. Sure-handed, physical receiver Michael Thomas set the franchise record with 104 catches on the season.
But that's a number that can easily be flipped in what Payton referred to as the "second season," when all 12 playoff teams start over with a clean slate. Kamara joins Ingram and Thomas as the best reasons for hope in that department.
Not only did Kamara catch 81 passes for 826 yards and five TDs, but he also led the NFL with 6.1 yards per rush while gaining 728 rushing yards and eight rushing TDs.
"He's got incredible balance, obviously," Brees said as he began listing Kamara's traits. "He's a very natural runner. His ability to fit into tight seams when he's running the football is pretty uncanny -- and then to shed tacklers. He's always got his feet on the ground, and he's a very smooth athlete.
"You could see that on the kickoff. It barely looked like he was running. So he's got some rare traits in that regard."
Shockingly, though, Kamara's historic season might not be enough to win him the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award since Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt had a monster season of his own for another division championship team.
Hunt wound up leading the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards and finished with 1,782 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns.
"[Kamara] has my vote," cracked Brees.
Sure, the Saints QB might be biased. But for good reason.