Vikings 26, Saints 20

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 are utilizing a 6-man rotation. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros should schedule an Old-Timers Game, if not annually maybe every other year. Only the Yankees have regularly played Old Timers Games and it’s a highlight in the Bronx every season. The Astros have plenty enough history to welcome back an ample number of guys to make for a fabulous event. Maybe they could tie it into their now annual Hall of Fame Weekend. Anyway, don’t you feel that if Jose Altuve took part in an Old Timers Game in 2050 he’d bang out a couple of hits, and then if the Astros played him in the regular game he’d line one more hit somehow, at age 60?

After missing the first 43 games of the season while recovering from his broken thumb, Altuve went 0 for four in his first game back, but has since been generally fantastic with his OPS through nine games played at 1.013. It won’t stay that high, but Altuve is a direly needed upgrade to the Astros’ offense which has been utterly mediocre. Offense is the reason the Astros continue to look up at the Texas Rangers in the American League West. The Rangers’ offense has been fantastic, outscoring the Astros by a whopping 100 runs through the first third of the season.

As the regular season entered its middle third this week, the Astros are in the middle of playing a game in 17 consecutive days. It’s their longest stretch of the season without an off day. They are inserting Ronel Blanco as a sixth starting pitcher in the rotation for a couple of turns. The point of mixing in a sixth starter isn’t that the Astros are teeming with guys who belong in a big league rotation. The 29-year-old Blanco is not a notable prospect. This is about lightening the load a little on two guys: Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown.

In becoming a rotation mainstay last season, Javier blew past his previous biggest season workload by nearly 50 innings. He’s on pace to go another 25 innings beyond that this year without even accounting for the playoffs. Hunter Brown last year set his professional high with 130 innings pitched encompassing work with the Space Cowboys and Astros. Brown is on pace for about 170 innings this regular season. That’s a significant jump, and of course the Astros are hoping for another postseason of multiple rounds. Javier, Brown, and Framber Valdez are the three most critical pitchers on the staff, and the Astros hope they remain healthily so for several more years.

Lance McCullers’s latest recovery setback makes his plight increasingly sad. Well, except for him on payday. The odds now lopsidedly favor McCullers never again pitching a near fully healthy and effective season. His only one to date was 2021 (until he broke down in the playoffs), the year before his five year 85 million dollar contract kicked in. McCullers pulls down 17 mil this year (And again next year. And in 2025. And 2026), exactly two and a half times what Framber Valdez makes. I reckon Framber’s representation is aware of this, as it is of the five year 63 million dollar deal the Astros struck with Cristian Javier. Framber is more than three years older than Javier, but has been better, and can hit free agency after the 2025 season, the same time Javier could have gone to market.

Timing isn’t everything but it darn sure can matter. The Astros’ two best relief pitchers through May were Hector Neris and Phil Maton. Neris enters June with a 1.19 earned run average, Maton even better with a teeny-weeny 0.68 ERA. Maton has been especially amazing, given that last year while not pitching very well he posted his career best ERA at 3.84. His 2022 ended ignominiously when after giving up a hit to his brother Nick in the regular season finale, Phil took the ding-a-ling of the week award by breaking his pitching hand punching his locker, sidelining him for the postseason. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. Now Maton is up for Best Pitcher (per inning worked). Both Neris and Maton were James Click acquisitions. Both become free agents after this season.

Up next

Four games with the Angels at Minute Maid Park through the weekend mean the amazing Shohei Ohtani is in town. It’s “Sho-time” on the mound Friday night in a doozy of a pitching matchup with Framber, with Ohtani batting in at least three of the four games. In one player the Angels have a pitcher as good as Cristian Javier and a hitter better than Kyle Tucker. And the Angels will probably miss the playoffs again anyway. And then lose Ohtani in free agency. After the Angels series the Astros are on the road next week. They start with four games at Toronto against the Blue Jays’ very potent lineup, then it’s three at Cleveland vs. the Guardians whose offense has been pathetic so far this season.

Walk this way

Geek Astro factoid of the week: Jeremy Pena drew two walks in Tuesday’s win over the Twins. In his rookie season, Pena had only one two walk game, also in May, also against the Twins. Tuesday’s bases on balls finally got Pena into double digits for the season. He has just 11 walks drawn (largely explaining his weak .307 on-base percentage) vs. 50 strikeouts.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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