NEW ORLEANS -- The top-seeded New Orleans Saints lost their first home playoff game in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era on Sunday -- ending their shot at a second Super Bowl together with a 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game. 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 Lombardi Trophy. But Brees' interception on the opening drive of overtime set up the Rams' game-winning field goal. 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 they ultimately couldn't hang on after jumping to a 13-0 lead on Sunday -- thanks in large part to a controversial no-call by the officials on New Orleans' final drive of regulation. "[The officials] felt the players arrived the same time the ball did. It's a tough way to lose a game -- especially when you're in position to win it like we were."
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 not to call pass interference on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman against Tommylee Lewis in the final minutes 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' 18th season was one of his best, as he finished the regular season with a NFL-record completion percentage of 74.4 and career-high passer rating of 115.7 before throwing 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 hang on quite 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.
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 still 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 since they don't have a first, third or fourth-round draft pick.
Will they keep Ingram? About six months ago it seemed inevitable that 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 1-2 backfield punch that works so well -- if he doesn't command big dollars on the open market.
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.