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NFL coaching mistakes: Sean Payton playing it too safe could hurt the Saints' playoff hopes

Kicking a field goal down 13 points did nothing to help the Saints in Week 12’s biggest coaching blunder.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints cruised into Week 12 with eight straight wins, but they hit a speed bump in the form of the Los Angeles Rams. Despite the heroics of Alvin Kamara, Jared Goff picked on a defense missing Marshon Lattimore and LA controlled the game for most of the afternoon.

The Rams held a rather comfortable 23-10 lead early in the fourth quarter before Drew Brees started his comeback, driving the Saints down to the 5-yard line. The drive stalled at the goal line, however, and the Saints faced a decision with fourth-and-goal from the 3 and 10:50 left in the game.

Going for it makes a lot of sense on several levels. For one, they have Brees. For another, Kamara and Mark Ingram have been tearing it up on the ground most of the season. Even if New Orleans misses the touchdown, it’d still leave the Rams pinned back on their own end zone. There was time to get a quick stop on defense and favorable field position on the next possession.

Instead of taking his chances, Sean Payton kicked the easy field goal. This dropped the score from 23-10 to 23-13 — still a two-possession game, essentially the same spot the Saints were in before. A field goal in that situation didn’t help their chances of winning, and they couldn’t play the field position game with a kickoff coming up.

The Saints quickly got the ball back when P.J. Williams picked off Goff on the next drive, but it was back at their own 19-yard line, nowhere near scoring range. Brees threw three straight incomplete passes and New Orleans was forced to punt, another wasted possession. The Saints didn’t see the ball again until the 2:21 mark, after LA kicked a field goal to make it 26-13.

At this point, Brees finally led a touchdown drive, but it was too little, too late as the Rams polished off a 26-20 win. The Saints blew multiple chances to stage a real comeback — like they did the week before against Washington — and it all started with Payton’s decision to take the points at the goal line instead of trying to punch it in. As always, playing not to lose is often a losing strategy itself.

As Jeanna Thomas points out, this might be a costly mistake in the long run.

The Saints have been sitting on top of the NFC South, but the loss to the Rams puts them even with the Panthers at 8-3. The Falcons are riding a three-game winning streak and are sitting just one game behind the Panthers and Saints at 7-4.

New Orleans is far from a lock to win the division. And in such a tight NFC race, the loss to the Rams could end up spelling disaster for the Saints’ playoff hopes.

The loss dropped the Saints from the No. 3 spot to No. 4 in the NFC playoff picture. And they have two upcoming games against the Falcons and the Panthers. It’s too early to panic, and Payton’s done some great work this season, but this was a needless error.

Let’s run down the other major coaching mistakes of the holiday weekend.

Mike McCarthy tries bad field goal that misses badly

As loath as I am to punt from enemy territory, sometimes you gotta know when to fold them. Heinz Field is a notoriously difficult atmosphere for kickers — a 57-yard field goal there is a major long shot if your name isn’t Justin Tucker. The Green Bay Packers were nursing a 21-14 lead in the third quarter, thanks to a surprisingly strong performance by Brett Hundley.

McCarthy went for the field goal anyway, and it went about as you might expect:

This was the last time the Packers held a lead — soon afterward, Antonio Brown tied up the game, and the Pittsburgh Steelers eventually escaped with a 31-28 win. The 5-6 Packers’ playoff hopes continue to dwindle.

Todd Bowles turtles up at the goal line

Remember when the New York Jets were 3-2? That was pretty weird. Anyway, Gang Green is still playing pretty hard and gave the Carolina Panthers a real game, but it wasn’t to be. In what’s become a running theme this week, Todd Bowles played it too safe on fourth down.

With the Panthers clinging to an 18-17 lead in the fourth quarter, the Jets had fourth-and-goal at the 1. Gotta score there, right? Do everything you can to spring a major upset. Let Josh McCown dive over the pile; that would’ve been a great GIF. Instead, Bowles settled for the 19-yard field goal, letting Carolina off the hook at the worst time. The Panthers went on to score 14 unanswered points and that was that.

Jim Caldwell can’t decide when to go for it

The Detroit Lions punted from midfield on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter when the game was still young. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Minnesota Vikings holding a 30-23 lead, Detroit had fourth-and-7 at its own 28. Caldwell still had a timeout and the two-minute warning left, so the Lions could’ve punted from deep in their territory and tried to get a defensive stop.

Instead, they went for it and Matthew Stafford threw an interception, allowing the Vikings to kill the clock. This was probably the last chance for the 6-5 Lions to make a game of it in the NFC North, with the Vikings moving to 9-2. Detroit is now part of the crowded NFC Wild Card pack.

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