Saints' Payton: Decision to go for TD instead of running was 'not debatable'

METAIRIE, La. -- Not only did Sean Payton stand by his decision to go for a touchdown in the final two minutes of the New Orleans Saints' season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Rams instead of running down the clock and settling for a field goal, he said Wednesday that it was "not debatable."

You might have missed it in the wake of the infamous "no-call." But Payton's playcalling in the final minutes of regulation was probably the second-most hotly debated topic in the wake of the Saints' 26-23 overtime loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

The game was tied at 20 with 1 minute, 58 seconds remaining. The Saints had first-and-10 on the Rams' 13-yard line. And the Rams had two timeouts left.

If the Saints had called three straight run plays, then kicked a field goal to go ahead 23-20, the Rams would have had almost exactly one minute left with no timeouts.

Instead, the Saints threw incomplete on first down (a rare miss from Drew Brees on a quick slant to receiver Michael Thomas). They ran on second down. Then they threw incomplete on third down to receiver Tommylee Lewis when the officials missed the pass interference and helmet-to-helmet penalties against Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman.

So the Saints wound up settling for the field goal anyway, and the Rams had 1:41 remaining, with one timeout -- which allowed them to send the game into overtime with a field goal of their own.

"Look, we knew that there were a few options. Three straight runs obviously brings it down to about 58 seconds and we're ahead three," Payton said Wednesday, when he met with the media for the first time since the night of the game. "Obviously time's important, but they had two timeouts at the time.

"Philosophically I didn't feel comfortable with ... three straight runs, kick a field goal, they come back and tie. And then [the questions would be], 'Why didn't you...?"

Payton had plenty of time to think through his decision during the two-minute warning. And he pointed out that NFL Films captured him telling Brees on the sideline that he wanted to try to score a TD in that situation.

"We gotta be smart here," Brees said while they were "mic'd up" on the sideline.

"Yeah. But I don't want to take 55 seconds and just kick a field goal," Payton replied. "So we're gonna be smart, but we're gonna try to score a touchdown."

"Absolutely. Absolutely," Brees replied.

If you look at the first-down playcall, the Saints did play it smart.

The play was actually a run call, with a designed audible if the Rams' defense stuffed the box with eight or nine defenders (which they did). The audible was the quick slant to Thomas -- a high-percentage play that worked 12 out of 13 times in the regular season on slant passes traveling 5 or fewer yards in the air, according to research cited by the New Orleans Advocate's Nick Underhill.

In fact, it looked like Thomas might have been able to score on the play since the defense was so loaded to stop the run. It was pretty stunning Brees threw the ball low and missed his sure-handed receiver.

"The look was clean. It was a little tough navigating the pass rush," Payton said of why the first-down throw didn't work.

The third-down playcall was less of a sure thing. But Lewis did break open out of a jet-sweep motion -- which led to Robey-Coleman sprinting over to cover him and admitting he basically intentionally fouled him to prevent a touchdown.

As anyone who follows me on social media knows, I have no problem with the Saints' playcalling in that situation and would have been stunned to see Payton go conservative in that situation because of how much time was left.

Payton is a known gambler who once started the second half of a Super Bowl with a surprise onside kick and faked a punt against the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in these playoffs.

It would have been a "gamble" to leave the Rams with a full minute to march down the field and kick a field goal -- even with no timeouts. Especially considering they have one of the NFL's best kickers in Greg Zuerlein, who eventually won the game with a 57-yard field goal in overtime.

As it was, the Rams got down to the Saints' 33 in just 56 seconds before using a timeout. (I know, the playcalling and defenses might have been altered under different circumstances, but that's still notable.) Later that night, Patrick Mahomes marched the Kansas City Chiefs into field-goal range in just 26 seconds with one timeout under similar circumstances to force overtime.

And as many Saints fans pointed out, New Orleans got burned in last year's playoffs for getting stuffed on a third-and-1 run play and leaving the Minnesota Vikings with 25 seconds on the clock to perform the "Minneapolis Miracle."

But all of that being said, the Saints left themselves open to criticism because they failed to execute. Not only in the final two minutes of regulation and in overtime, but earlier in the game when they settled for two first-quarter field goals in the red zone.

Payton said that was probably his biggest self-critique from the loss.

"The early field position, we had opportunities to score more points," Payton said of a Saints team that jumped to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter -- thanks in part to linebacker Demario Davis' interception -- before sputtering a bit.

And, really, the offense had been sputtering too much over the final seven games of the season, dating to the Week 13 loss at Dallas on a Thursday night.

The Saints led the NFL with an eye-popping 37.2 points per game over the first 12 weeks of the season and ranked fifth in the league with 416.6 yards per game.

Over their final six games (not counting when they benched their starters in Week 17), they averaged just 20.7 points and 316.7 yards per game.

Brees went from 29 TD passes and two interceptions over his first 11 games to seven TD passes and five interceptions over his final six games.

"We played some pretty good defenses, and yet I think it's a fair question," Payton said when asked about the late-season offensive slump. "We had a stretch [in the middle of the season], maybe it was a little unrealistic to what we were scoring and how we were scoring and that feeling coming off games" against the Rams (scoring 45 points in Week 9) and the Cincinnati Bengals (scoring 51 Week 10).

"Philosophically, the Rams had changed a lot of what they were doing defensively to a much more zone approach," Payton said. "But the Eagles [in the divisional round of the playoffs] -- look, they were a tough defense, they were a tough out. And that's the nature of the game. I mean, you get into the playoffs and you're not scoring 40 points that often. So we're constantly critiquing ourselves and trying to be better at it."