I don't even really know where to start.
This was supposed to be the team. This was supposed to be the year. Vindictively, in making up for the year-long reoccurring nightmare that was the Minneapolis Miracle with a dream season. Commemoratively, in honoring the passing of their late, great owner Tom Benson. Timely, in giving one of the best quarterbacks of all time another massive addition to his resume before his age eventually caught up with him in the twilight if his career. Capably, as there wasn't any one huge deficiency to point to on a team that was rife with young talent. Culturally, as I struggle to remember a locker room that was as genuinely inspired by their love of one another as well as the undeniable bond they developed with both the city and fanbase. Their current construction makes it so that their championship window isn't quite closed, but make no mistake...this was supposed to be the team. This was supposed to be the year.
Now, at the peak of their powers, the Saints would have run roughshod over an opponent that was basically left trying to read lips as the SuperDome spent the majority of the first half deafening their eardrums. Holding merely a 13-10 lead at halftime was a huge disappointment considering Todd Gurley's biggest contribution was in handing the ball right back to a team that typically murders their opposition with momentum in the merciless confines of their own building. The opportunity to pin a figuratively and literally rattled Rams' team to the mat was absolutely there early on, and they were basically left lying lifeless in the middle of the ring until they caught their breath - plain and simple.
The offense failed New Orleans in big spots. Sean Payton made some suspect calls, Drew Brees made some off-target throws, and the usual suspects in the passing game weren't quite able to make up for a running game that was stuck in the mud. Then, when things did come together and they finally regained a two score lead in the second half, the defense had its own turn in disappointing on a crucial drive. As is usually the case when the consensus two best teams in the conference face off, it became a hard fought game in which one single play could eventually make the difference. It probably shouldn't have had to, but it did.
And when it did, after the Saints, despite a myriad of mistakes, had worked their way into a position to run that one play, it wasn't any one player from either team that was left to decide it's outcome. That's what makes the mourning period following this loss so much more heart-wrenching than that of that one fateful night in Minnesota. The fact that the Saints weren't even allowed to let a sure victory slip away on their own accord this time around. With a mind-numbing non-call on a play that should have been penalized six different ways to the Sunday after next, the officiating stole a Super Bowl appearance from the Saints. The Saints put themselves in a position to have it stolen, and they had ample opportunity to steal it back, but a vulnerable victim is still a victim. If the bargain basement bar for supervising professional football was met by those standing within feet of a collision that will clock in as the number one no-no in the NFL's next Illegal Defense For Dummies video then, pending a chip shot field goal from one of the league's most consistent kickers, the game is over. It's really that cut and dry.
So, while I'm not one to claim the fix was in or call into question conspiracy theories, spare me the "missed calls went both ways" narrative, because if that was a missed call then it was only missed in the way that I might "miss" making eye contact with an overeager homeless person. Labeling it a judgement call is only accurate if the decision to put on pants before heading into the office is also a judgement call, because making it required nothing more than the bare-minimum in terms of upholding professional responsibility. The referees didn't want one of their flags to end the game undramatically, even though it would have been one that definitively proved they really are prioritizing head injuries and helmet-to-helmet hits, so one took his hand (that instinctually shot directly to his belt) off his in actively allowing the Los Angeles Rams a second life...
Again, when you blow a 13-point lead at home there is no shortage of woulda, coulda, shoulda moments that you're left to live with. Still, none of them, and I mean not a single one, was anywhere near as egregious as the most blatantly ignored pass interference in the history of interfered passes. I typically bemoan the practice of searching for excuses following even the most disheartening of defeats, but the officiating of the most crucial play to that point in a Conference Championship was inexcusable. It's not even worth listing out all the parties that know that to be true, because everyone (including the player who delivered the hit) not tasked with maintaining the integrity of a multi-billion dollar product would have done a better job of doing so. The Saints cost themselves plenty of breathing room in a game they eventually went on to lose in overtime, but in no world in which referees have retinas should they have cost themselves a victory. That was the work of a cowardly officiating crew that determined the outcome of what was supposed to be a special season in completely counterproductively trying not to determine the outcome of a game. Credit to the Rams for weathering the storm and taking full advantage, but the wrong team is representing the NFC on the biggest stage in sports, whether the right team did everything in their power to avoid that being the case or not.