Even with Drew Brees missing a significant portion of the season, the New Orleans Saints still remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. However, the return of the iconic quarterback may not result in a valuable first-round bye for the reigning NFC South champions.
In fact, just a day after Sean Payton announced that Brees will start against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, the Saints suffered a brutal blow to their chances of securing the conference’s top seed.
New Orleans and Green Bay are battling for the No. 1 seed in the NFC
Coming off a 13-3 season, the Saints entered 2020 as one of the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFL. Through 13 games, they have certainly lived up to the hype.
Before he landed on injured reserve, Drew Brees had shown little signs of slowing down in his age-41 campaign. In nine games, he has completed 73.5% of his passes for 2,196 yards, and 18 touchdowns. Taysom Hill went 3-1 as the fill-in starter. The dual-threat quarterback didn’t put up crazy passing numbers, but his athleticism allowed him to make a few plays that Brees simply never could.
At 10-3, the Saints remain firmly in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. However, they face stiff competition from the Packers, who also own a 10-3 record. Unfortunately for the Saints, one of their losses came against Aaron Rodgers and Co. back in Week 3. Green Bay escaped from New Orleans with a 37-30 victory that included 24 second-half points.
Currently, the Saints own the No. 2 seed in the conference. The Packers own the head-to-head record tiebreaker, so they are on track to have a coveted first-round bye come playoff time.
And with only three weeks remaining on the schedule, neither NFC powerhouse can afford a loss.
Michael Thomas won’t be catching passes from Drew Brees anytime soon
Although Drew Brees will finally be back under center on Sunday, he won’t have his favorite target available. In fact, Michael Thomas won’t catch another regular-season pass in 2020.
On Saturday, the Saints placed their No. 1 receiver on injured reserve due to a lingering ankle injury. He will miss the team’s final three games, including a monster matchup against the Chiefs. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Saints expect Thomas to be close to 100% for the start of the playoffs.
The three-time Pro Bowl receiver has struggled to stay healthy all year. After setting the NFL single-season reception record in 2019, Thomas has only caught 40 passes for 438 yards in seven games.
Still, he has built terrific chemistry with Brees since he arrived as a second-round pick in 2016. When healthy, the former Ohio State star dominates as a chain-moving presence who can inflict major damage in the red zone thanks to his 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame.
However, by landing on IR, Thomas won’t have a chance to reunite with his longtime quarterback until the playoffs. And ultimately, his absence represents a brutal blow to the Saints’ chances of securing the No. 1 seed. Because with the Chiefs up next, the timing of the transaction couldn’t be worse for New Orleans.
The Saints are going to need a miracle to secure a first-round bye
The return of Drew Brees should have swung the Saints’ odds of winning on Sunday heavily in their favor. But with Michael Thomas out for the rest of the regular season, New Orleans suddenly doesn’t look nearly as dangerous moving forward.
Although they do have the benefit of playing at home, the Saints will have a tough time stopping a Chiefs team that might be even better than a year ago.
Kansas City ranks second in the league in scoring and eighth in points allowed. Patrick Mahomes should win his second MVP trophy, and Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill should be slam-dunk first-team All-Pro selections. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have fallback options like Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs have excelled at turning the football over. Tyrann Mathieu leads the team with six interceptions and should have no trouble earning his second Pro Bowl berth.
With the Chiefs also battling for the No. 1 seed in their own conference, that gives Mahomes and Co. extra motivation to win on the road. And that spells bad news for the Saints and their playoff seeding.
A loss on Sunday will drop the Saints to 10-4. They wrap up the season with a home game against Minnesota before traveling to Carolina in Week 17.
Meanwhile, Green Bay has a very winnable remaining schedule with matchups against Carolina, Tennessee, and Chicago.
To put it bluntly: Every week is a must-win scenario for New Orleans to have any shot at stealing the No. 1 seed away from Green Bay.
But with Thomas out, the Saints’ offense won’t have the firepower to compete with the Chiefs on Sunday. And as long as Mahomes and the rest of his talented teammates take care of business, they should leave New Orleans with a victory.
Unfortunately for the Saints, that means their chances of earning a first-round bye will have left, too.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.