Vikings 26, Saints 20

Saints vs Vikings Wildcard Playoff: Good, bad and ugly

Saints vs Vikings Wildcard Playoff: Good, bad and ugly
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In the second overtime game of Wildcard Weekend, the Saints managed to lose a thriller at home to the Vikings. Here are my observations:

The Good

-I can't say enough about Taysom Hill. The guy does damn near everything! He lead the Saints to their first touchdown of the day with a nice run, 50 yard pass to Deonte Harris, and was Alvin Kamara's lead block out the backfield on the touchdown run. He ran the ball four times, and produced a first down every time. When Sean Payton says Hill could be Drew Brees' eventual successor, I tend to believe him now more than I did before.

-Demario Davis has been the Saints best defensive player not named Cam Jordan since his arrival. He makes plays all over the field in the run and pass game. His leadership on and off the field has been just as valuable. His touchdown-saving tackle on Dalvin Cook in the 2nd quarter helped hold the Vikings to a field goal instead of tying the game.

-Another one of the better defenders on this Saints defense has been Marcus Williams. The young safety led the team with 10 tackles and was very much needed. He was often tasked with making tackles when the front seven couldn't stop the run game or when his teammates in the secondary couldn't cover their guys. The only gripe I had was him not being able to get over the top when the Vikings went deep in overtime.

The Bad

-The defense got their first opening drive turnover of the season this year. Good, right? Not good when the offense takes over on the Vikings' 37 yard line, drive it inside the 10, and come away with only a field goal. The key play was Brees taking an uncharacteristic sack on 3rd&Goal from 4 yard line. In games like this against tough defenses, you have to take advantage of field position and score touchdowns.

-Missed tackles have become the team's Achilles heel. Whether it's not making a sure tackle that leads to extra yards by a running back or receiver, this defense continues to look like a group of first time tackle football playing kids when it comes to the game's most fundamental principle on that side of the ball.

-Dalvin Cook managed to break the Saints run defense. He ran for 96 yards on 26 carries along with two touchdowns. It broke the Saints down completely. Not only does a pounding run game hurt, but it also opened up the play action pass game as well as other aspects of the Vikings' offense.

The Ugly

-On their first eight possessions of the game, the Saints had nine first downs, 158 total yards, and gave up two sacks plus a ton of pressures. They couldn't get into a rhythm. Outside of the Hill-led touchdown drive, they were gifted three points off the fumble they recovered for a total of 10 points and went into the 4th quarter down 20-10.

-The Brees interception just before the two minute warning for halftime was critical. Not only did he throw into double coverage, but it also allowed the Vikings to take the lead 13-10. They had a chance to tie it after Harris brought the kickoff back 57 yards, but Will Lutz missed a 43-yard field goal attempt. These are the sequences that can be pointed to when teams lose games.

-There were two crucial plays that helped put the Saints in position to lose this game: the Brees fumble in the 4th quarter when they were in field goal range and Will Lutz's missed field goal to end the 1st half. Both took points off the board and both occurred in very critical times. But the worst goes to whoever put Patrick Robinson on Adam Thielen for a 40-yard completion to the 2 yard line.

The Saints have proved to be almost unbeatable at home in the playoffs. That myth was thoroughly busted today. This team has now made an awful habit of losing some of the closest, most heart-breaking playoff games. While there were blown calls by the refs against both teams, none of them would've changed the outcome. Hill was team MVP this game. He helped spur this team on when it seemed like no one else could. If any one player has to take the blame for this loss, it would be Brees. His two turnovers directly impacted the outcome and took points off the board (the fumble), or helped put points on the board for the Vikings (the interception). Another year, another terrible way to end the season for the Saints.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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