NEW ORLEANS -- No way. Not again. The top-seeded New Orleans Saints fell victim to one of the most infamous officiating gaffes in sports history in Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game that coach Sean Payton said they will "probably never get over."
Who would have ever thought the Saints' season could have ended in an even more gut-wrenching fashion than last year's "Minneapolis Miracle" -- not to mention the 2011 heartbreaker at San Francisco that feels downright pleasant by comparison?
A missed pass interference call in the final minutes of regulation that was so stunning, egregious and unforgivable that "The No-Call" will forever take its place among the sports lexicon.
It was the first home playoff loss in the Payton-Drew Brees era. Worse yet, it cost them their best chance in nine years to reach a second Super Bowl together -- if not their last chance. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:
Season grade: Near perfection. The Saints came oh-so-close to their second Super Bowl trip in franchise history -- a long nine years after Payton and Brees first hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But the Saints ultimately couldn't hang on Sunday after jumping to a 13-0 lead -- thanks in large part to a controversial no-call by the officials on New Orleans' final drive of regulation. And it was a call Payton said he and the Saints will "probably never get over."
The Saints made a great run at it, earning the NFC's No. 1 seed with a 13-3 record, and the age-defying Brees posted the best passer rating of his career this season before turning 40 on Tuesday. But Brees' interception on the opening drive of overtime set up the Rams' game-winning field goal. Said Payton: "Man, I was proud of these guys. It's been a great season, it's a great group of guys that's worked extremely hard. To come off a tough loss like we did last year and put ourselves in this position -- right there in a position inside the 10-yard line to go to the Super Bowl -- I'm proud of every one of 'em."
Season in review: The end was stunning after the Saints felt destined to reach the Super Bowl for most of the season -- and for most of Sunday's game. But now the 2018 season will always be remembered for the officials' decision to not call pass interference on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman against Tommylee Lewis in the final minutes of regulation and for Brees' throwing just his third interception in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome all season when he was hit as he threw on the opening drive of overtime.
Brees acknowledged the loss was even harder to take, knowing he might not get many more chances like this. But he said, "I plan on being here next year and making another run it."
Brees' 18th season was one of his best, as he finished the regular season with an NFL-record completion percentage of 74.4 and career-high passer rating of 115.7. He threw for 249 yards with two TDs and the interception on Sunday. At his hottest point, in the middle of the season, he threw a total of 15 TD passes during a four-game stretch in which the Saints averaged 44 points per game. But it wasn't just "all Brees, all the time" for one of Payton's most balanced teams yet. The Saints had five players named either first- or second-team All-Pro for the first time in franchise history -- including first-team wide receiver Michael Thomas, who set team records with 125 catches and 1,405 yards. And their run defense finished second in the NFL, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and linebacker Demario Davis, among others. The Saints relied on their defense to win several games down the stretch as the offense struggled a bit because of depth issues at receiver and injury issues on the offensive line. The highlight of that defensive surge came when cornerback Marshon Lattimore intercepted two passes in the divisional-round playoff win against Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, that defense couldn't quite hang on enough after an outstanding start to Sunday's game. Former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks helped the Rams catch up with two big plays in the second and third quarters. Then, the Rams quickly marched downfield for a game-tying field goal attempt late in regulation and kicked the 57-yard winner in overtime.
Jordan was as upset as anybody in the Saints' locker room over the missed PI call, making cracks like, "Maybe the lights were too bright for him to see," and, "Blame it on the government shutdown, I don't know. At some point this s--- is ridiculous."
But Jordan was also quick to say, "We gotta put it on the defense. We had a chance to ... get them out of field-goal range. So that's on us. We had control for the whole 60 minutes and ended up losing in the final overtime. Words can't describe that. We were defeated at the end of the day, so we don't have the right to complain about the what ifs, the should've, the could've. At the end of the day we were able to take the field, and we needed to create a big turnover."
Brees, Bridgewater and long-term QB plans: Unless Brees announces any surprise retirement plans, he'll come back for a 19th NFL season with a stacked roster that is poised to make another Super Bowl run. But it seems almost impossible for the Saints to keep both Brees and 26-year-old backup QB Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints traded a third-round pick last summer for Bridgewater and a sixth-rounder -- both because they wanted insurance at the position and because they wanted to get a closer look at a potential future successor for Brees. However, Bridgewater is now set to become an unrestricted free agent, so there's a good chance he will be lured away by big money and an opportunity to start right away. Brees is obviously still going strong, and he has said many times he believes he can keep playing at a high level until he's 45 -- though he has never specified that he wants to play that long. If Bridgewater does leave, the Saints might want to invest in a rookie QB. But that will be harder than ever this year because they don't have a first-, third- or fourth-round draft pick.
Will they keep Ingram? About six months ago, it seemed inevitable this would be Mark Ingram's final season in New Orleans, since he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and they have Alvin Kamara as a No. 1 back. But the Saints had a much more difficult time replacing Ingram than expected during his four-game suspension to start the season after they auditioned several veterans and a sixth-round draft pick in the role. So now that they don't have many draft picks to work with, they might consider keeping Ingram in a one-two backfield punch that works so well -- if he doesn't command big dollars on the open market.
Ingram was one of the most visibly distraught players in the Saints' locker room after Sunday's game, shaking his head repeatedly during long pauses before answers. He described the PI call as "terrible." And when asked to describe how he feels, said, "S---, I can't say no words," before adding, "We gotta find a way to overcome it. We've bounced back before, so we just gotta find some way to get over it." And when asked if this could be his last game as a Saints, Ingram only mumbled, "I don't know."
Bad news, good news: The Saints' lack of draft picks is a definite concern, and they're not exactly rolling in salary-cap space -- though they do have a little cushion to work with. The good news is they also don't have many glaring roster needs. Tight end is near the top of the list, especially since veteran Benjamin Watson announced his plans to retire. But defensive end Alex Okafor and nose tackle Tyeler Davison are the only other starters scheduled to be free agents. Things will get more difficult in 2020, when Brees, Thomas and offensive linemen Max Unger and Andrus Peat are free agents, among others.