NEW ORLEANS It could have been a very special week with victories against Super Bowl 50 combatants Denver and Carolina over a five-day span.
Beating the Broncos and Panthers would have catapulted the New Orleans Saints into the conference playoff picture and the NFC South race and set the stage for what promised to be an exciting holiday stretch run.
Not at 4-6 and seemingly incapable of eclipsing the all-elusive .500 mark.
Not after last Sunday’s inexplicable 25-23 loss to Denver on a blocked PAT returned for two points in the final 90 seconds at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Not after Thursday night’s prime time meltdown by Saints’ special teams in a 23-20 loss to Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
It seems like Black Friday arrived a week early in New Orleans, though the sickening feeling felt by Saints fans everywhere has nothing to do with the post-Thanksgiving sales promotion that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.
No, this Black Friday would describe an emptiness felt by Saints owner Tom Benson, GM Mickey Loomis, Coach Sean Payton, their coaches and players and an entire organization, knowing that this could have been a defining moment.
But the five-day stretch from Sunday through Thursday was anything but special for Saints special teams.
No sense rehashing the Denver debacle. That block by Justin Simmons and scoop-and-score by twinkle toes Will “White Shoes’’ Parks has been well documented.
It seemed like deja vu all over again Thursday night in Charlotte.
To set the scene: Trailing Carolina 13-3 with 39 seconds left in the first half, Saints kicker Will Lutz set up for a 38-yard field goal attempt. Snap, hold, kick, block.
Panthers’ rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler deflected the low trajectory high into the air and into the waiting arms of linebacker Luke Kuechly, who set off on a joyous 88-yard journey for an apparent touchdown.
It was eerily reminiscent of the Broncos game, complete with Saints holder Thomas Morstead giving futile chase after the ballcarrier.
Only this time no points were awarded. A Broncos’ player was whistled for an illegal block below the waist, nullifying what would have been a Kuechly TD and returning the score to 13-3.
But not for long.
On first down from the Saints 40, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton connected with a sliding Ted Ginn Jr. in the back of the end zone on a play initially called incomplete on the field, reviewed in the replay booth and overturned for a TD and a 20-3 lead.
Saints special teams made other gaffes. For instance:
▪ Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro was called for roughing the kicker after Graham Gano drilled a 30-yard FG in the first quarter. Given new life at the Saints 6, Carolina took the points off the board, and eventually were forced to make a 32-yard FG.
▪ Now trailing 10-3 inside the final six minutes of the first half, Saints rookie returner Marcus Murphy muffed a kickoff out of bounds at his 1-yard line. That youthful decision ultimately led to a short field for Carolina and a 49-yard FG for a 13-3 lead.
▪ Minutes later, the Panthers blocked a FG attempt and scored a sudden touchdown before halftime, resulting in a devastating 10-point swing.
If it sounds like I’m picking on special teams, specifically the snap-hold-kick operation, it’s because I am. In a 16-13 road loss to the New York Giants, the G-Men returned a blocked chipshot FG-attempt for a touchdown.
Thus, special teams’ mistakes have become a disturbing trend.
Quarterback Drew Brees also played a lead role in Thursday night’s loss. He had a hand in 10 points for the Panthers with a lost fumble and an interception, though he led the Saints on a valiant fourth-quarter rally with 17 points.
In all, the Panthers scored 20 points as a result of Saints’ turnovers and bonehead plays, negating what proved to be the best game played by a vastly-improved defense, though I wonder why defensive coordinator Dennis Allen didn’t blitz Newton on that pivotal third-and-10 from the Panthers’ 15 inside the final 2 1/2 minutes.
The Saints feigned blitz, then dropped back into zone coverage. Newton stepped up in the pocket and collaborated with 6-foot-5 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on a huge 18-yard completion.
That clutch first-down play enabled the Panthers to milk the clock, preserve their 23-20 lead and give the ball back to Brees in desperation mode.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot another special teams’ blunder.
The Saints were forced to start the last-ditch drive from their 14 after a holding penalty against the punt-return team.
A fitting conclusion to a week squandered.