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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — No one can accuse the New Orleans Saints of giving up.
Displaced by a hurricane early in the season and undermined by injuries to key players throughout, New Orleans nearly became the first NFL team to start four quarterbacks and still make the playoffs.
In fact, the Saints (9-8) weren’t eliminated from postseason contention until after they’d won their final game, marking their fourth victory in five contests.
The celebration of their final triumph lasted only minutes before it was muted by San Francisco beating the Los Angeles Rams in overtime.
Had the Rams held on to an early 17-0 lead, or even a one-touchdown lead they took with less than 1:30 to play in regulation, New Orleans would have qualified for the playoffs for a fifth straight season. Instead, the Niners took the final NFC playoff spot.
“This team, especially in last month or so, really found a rhythm," veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We felt like we were playing well as a team collectively, and honestly, we've been having fun.
“You realize this group in particular won’t have another chance to play with each other,” Jenkins added. “That’s probably the most disappointing part.”
The 2021 Saints will be remembered as a team that fielded one of the better defenses in the NFL but which struggled mightily on offense because of a series of injuries during what was also the club's first season since the retirement of franchise all-time passing leader Drew Brees.
“I hate (the season ending) for our defense because I think our defense was so stellar,” said defensive end Cam Jordan, who led the club with 12 1/2 sacks. “I hate it for our offense because I think our offense overcame a lot. I hate not seeing the playoffs for the first time in five years.”
Saints coach Sean Payton and his staff had their hands full with constant injury- or COVID-19-related shakeups to the roster and even the staff at times. New Orleans started an NFL-record 57 different players this season. Eight assistant coaches were absent for a Week 2 loss at Carolina. Payton himself couldn't attend a victory at Tampa Bay.
Challenges on offense were compounded by top receiver Michael Thomas not playing this season because of setback in his recovery from offseason ankle surgery.
Brees' successor, Jameis Winston, went out for the season with a knee injury in New Orleans' seventh game. That was followed by a five-game losing streak in which New Orleans' top offensive player, running back Alvin Kamara, missed four games with a knee injury. The Saints also played 11 games without starting guard Andrus Peat, while left tackle Terron Armstead missed nine games and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk missed seven.
New Orleans' lone loss in its last five games came on a Monday night against Miami when 16 Saints players — including then-starting QB Taysom Hill and backup Trevor Siemian — were removed from the active roster because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The Saints had little choice but to start rookie QB Ian Book.
Linebacker Demario Davis, who was among the players held out against Miami, was gratified to see the Saints stay in the hunt as long as they did.
“There’s still a lot to be said and a lot to be commended for the efforts of the team and the players and the coaches and all that we had to endure,” Davis said. “This team was resilient and continued to fight all the way through.”
Winston went 5-2 as a starter, passing for 1,170 yards, 14 TDs and three interceptions. He is due to become a free agent as he continues his rehabilitation from an ACL tear.
Hill, a dual-threat QB, went 4-1 as a starter, passing for 978 yards and four TDs with five interceptions. He also led the Saints with five TDs rushing, while his 374 yards rushing trailed only Kamara on the club.
Siemian was 0-4 as a starter, but played well for more than a half in two victories, the first when Winston was injured and the second in the season finale, when Hill had a Lisfranc injury. Siemian finished with 1,154 yards and 11 TDs passing vs. three interceptions.
Book lost his only start, passing for 135 yards, throwing two interceptions and taking eight sacks.
New Orleans was highly ranked in numerous defensive categories: Seventh in yards allowed per game (318.2), fourth in points allowed per game (19.7), eighth in sacks (46) and sixth in interceptions (18).
The defensive line thrived after top tackle David Onyemata returned from his six-game suspension and when end Marcus Davenport (nine sacks in 11 games) was healthy. All of Jordan's sacks came in his final 11 games.
Veteran cornerback Marshon Lattimore, rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo, second-year nickel back C.J. Gardner-Johnson and veteran defensive back P.J. Williams tied for the team lead in interceptions with three each.
UPS AND DOWNS
The Saints had four victories over playoff teams: two over Tampa Bay and one each over Green Bay and New England.
But they also lost in overtime at home to the lowly New York Giants and lost at home to Atlanta on a field goal as time expired — regrettable results for club that missed the playoffs by one game.
Most major moves are bound to come on offense.
The Saints will have to decide whether to pursue a new quarterback and whether injury-plagued offensive linemen Armstead and Peat have a future with the club. Armstead is due to be a free agent.
Uncertainty surrounds Thomas after he missed the entire season and the Saints need better production in the passing game, which ranked last in the NFL (187.4 yards per game).
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Brett Martel, The Associated Press