Here is the NFC playoff picture after Week 15
The philanthropic Pittsburgh Steelers took the season of giving to another level Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, reminding me to check my Super Bowl LIII list twice to see if the New Orleans Saints have been oh-so very nice.
Win the NFC South — check.
Claim a first-round bye in the playoffs — check.
Earn homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs — check.
Next up on their post-season to-do list — win the NFC championship, beginning with a divisional round game at the Superdome the weekend of Jan. 12-13.
And while there are still miles to travel along the playoff road, it appears the Black and Gold (13-2) are well positioned to play for the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 3 inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.
I’m not placing much stock in Sunday’s regular-season finale at the Superdome (noon, FOX) against the floundering Carolina Panthers, losers of seven straight games and playing without sore-armed starting QB Cam Newton. It amounts to nothing more than a glorified preseason game, a mere distraction for Who Dat Nation before the “Second Season’‘ gets underway.
The Steelers were the Saints’ latest conquest, self-destructing in the last 5 minutes to hand over an early 31-28 Christmas gift to the Black and Gold before a festive and LOUD sellout crowd of 70,000-plus.
The outcome remained in doubt until Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was accosted by Saints defenders Sheldon Rankins and DeMario Davis, who collaborated on a forced fumble and recovery at the Saints’ 35 with 32 seconds remaining.
Moments earlier, the Saints had secured a 31-28 lead on a 2-yard TD pass from MVP candidate Drew Brees to wide receiver Michael Thomas, culminating a 10-play, 46-yard drive kept alive by a fourth-down pass interference penalty by CB Joe Haden.
The Steelers gifted a short field to the Saints after failing to convert a fake punt on fourth-and five from their 42, a shocking decision by Coach Mike Tomlin that backfired and could cost Pittsburgh (8-6-1) a trip to the playoffs.
Saints linebacker Craig Robertson and safety Chris Banjo combined to drop upback Roosevelt Nix one yard short of his intended goal, setting in motion another serendipitous win in what has been a karma-filled season to date.
“I wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to assure that we had an opportunity to win the game,’‘ Tomlin explained from the loser’s locker room.
In the winner’s locker room, the dancing Saints got their groove on, including coach Sean Payton who busted a move in celebration of his team’s 13th win and locking up home field advantage for the second time in franchise history.
And in the distance, a Who Dat voice could be heard: “Now Payton, Now Brees, Kamara and Thomas! On Ingram, On Jordan, Lattimore and Lutz!”
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
In the new year, the Saints will show whether they can shimmy their way to the Super Bowl.