Last year's feel-good story of the New Orleans Saints won't have a sequel this time around.
The defending Super Bowl champions were a double-digit favourite to upend the Seattle Seahawks in Saturday's Wild Card matchup, but instead had the season cut short with a 41-36 road loss in the Pacific Northwest.
Maybe the short week and cross-country flight to the Emerald City weighed heavily on a defence that seemed to forget how to tackle and defend the pass. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck shrugged off a hip injury to throw for four touchdown passes and running back Marshawn Lynch had a late 67-yard touchdown scamper that will be on highlight reels for decades.
"I don't think that's what we have been in the past," Saints safety Darren Sharper said on a poor-tackling effort. "We have shown the ability to tackle better than that, especially in a situation where we are trying to get our offence the football back. That was a beastly run by him (Lynch). He had a lot more hunger than we did trying to bring him down."
Head coach Sean Payton was disappointed in all three phases of the game, especially the return game. New Orleans had to work long drives in order to score and played without its top two running backs due to injury. Rookie Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas were both inactive, leaving rushing duties to Julius Jones and Reggie Bush. Jones did his best with 59 yards and two scores on 15 carries, while Bush posted only 12 yards on five touches. Both Ivory and Thomas are expected to see a specialist on their foot problems. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is also dealing with a knee issue.
According to Payton, if the Saints were still alive in the postseason Bush would most likely miss the game with a leg contusion. Bush is expected to rake in more than $11 million next season in the sixth and final year of his contract. His fate will now be in the hands of Payton and upper management.
Speaking of locking up players for the long haul, Brees is entering the last year on his deal with the Saints and could expect to see a hefty extension come his way this offseason. Brees single-handedly kept New Orleans in the game at Seattle, completing 39 of his 60 pass attempts for a pair of touchdown passes and no interceptions. Brees finished first in the NFL with a 68.1 completion percentage, tied for second with 33 touchdown passes and third with 4,620 passing yards in the regular season. He has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in a season five straight times and locking him up is a no-brainer.
The Saints have several players that are free agents now, including Thomas, Jones, Sharper, wide receiver Lance Moore, left tackle Jermon Bushrod, center Jonathan Goodwin, safety Roman Harper, who had a bad game against the Seahawks, and kicker Garrett Hartley. Hartley booted the Saints to the Super Bowl in last year's NFC Championship versus Minnesota and struggled early on in 2010. Along with Bush, tight end Jeremy Shockey, wideout Devery Henderson and defensive back Randall Gay could all be released or have their 2011 contracts restructured.
A couple of Brees' top targets -- wide receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem -- are set to have their contracts expire at the end of next season. The same holds true for cornerback Tracy Porter, whose interception return for a touchdown in last year's Super Bowl sealed the win.
Next year will be another competitive season for the Saints with expectations of making another run at a Super Bowl high on the list. With players returning from injury and possibly acquiring some new faces via draft or free agency, this team is still built for success. The Saints have the 24th pick in the draft. It remains to be seen what the NFL has in store for a new collective bargaining agreement that could alter ways teams build in the offseason.
One way a team prepares for success is by landing a knowledgeable head coach and apparently the Denver Broncos are interested in Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
"Yes, today they sent a fax in," Payton said Monday in reference to Denver's interest in Williams. "I'm not certain when that will take place. We'll kind of report that as it goes. Like expected, when our season concluded, they went ahead and asked for permission."
Payton acknowledged that the Broncos were the only team to inquire, but reports then surfaced that Williams has pulled out of consideration.
SAINTS MUST BUILD STRONGER DEFENCE
The Saints went 11-5 this season and were competitive in every loss except a 30-17 setback versus Cleveland on Oct. 24. Although currently injured, safety Malcolm Jenkins played well in place of Sharper this season, while Porter and Jabari Greer have proven to be fine cover guys despite contributing to a blown 17-7 advantage on Saturday.
Harper was beaten a few times on touchdown passes by Hasselbeck over the weekend, but he's still the best New Orleans has at the other safety position. Linebacker Danny Clark is getting up there in age and the Saints could target a linebacker in April's NFL Draft. Jonathan Vilma is still reliable at the middle linebacker spot and Scott Shanle can cover on the outside. Vilma and Shanle finished first and third, respectively, on the team in tackles.
Shanle had the defence's only sack of Hasselbeck Saturday. Defensive ends Will Smith and Alex Brown were off their game, but combined for nine tackles against the Seahawks. There are a few defensive studs in the upcoming draft New Orleans can take a look at, much like it did just a few years ago when defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis was plucked from USC. Ellis and Smith finished tied for the team lead in sacks with six this season.
Vilma was third with four sacks for New Orleans, which became the fifth straight defending Super Bowl champion to fail to win a single playoff game the following year.
"I think every one of these guys will take advantage of the time away and kind of re-energize, and then when the time comes, get refocused again to that commitment of winning football and trying to win another championship," Payton said of his players.
UP NEXT: GETTING READY FOR 2011
The soon-to-be-richer Brees was disappointed after the loss to the Seahawks because the Saints had such high aspirations and expectations to be the first back-to-back champion since New England in 2003-04.
Now that the dust has somewhat settled after the first-round loss, Brees and Company can take same time off to reflect on what might have been and prepare for hopefully an even better 2011 campaign. The Saints already know who their 2011 opponents will be, as they will host Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Detroit, the New York Giants, Houston and Indianapolis.
The Saints will obviously visit the NFC North-rival Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers along with the Packers, Vikings, Rams, Jaguars and Titans. A matchup with Peyton Manning and the Colts will be a rematch of Super Bowl XLIV won by the Saints, who still believe the window of opportunity for multiple championships is still wide open.
If the Saints reach the playoffs for a third consecutive year in 2011, the results may be a bit different with a few healthy running backs. Ivory impressed in his first season at the NFL level and was sorely missed in the playoffs, where the Saints are 0-4 on the road.