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One last game.

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Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton with quarterback Drew Brees (9) before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton with quarterback Drew Brees (9) before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Saints have one game left to play in the 2016 season. Let’s make it count.

It hasn’t been the best year for the Saints, has it?

I mean, it started off well. In the first game of 2016, the Saints rode into Atlanta and came away with a 20-17 win. That was the final game of the 2015 season, and it left the Saints right where they’d been a year before: 7-9.

Fast forward nine months and the Saints kick off the 2016 season against Derek Carr and the Raiders. In some ways, that game is a microcosm for the rest of the season. They play well against a top-tier team, neutralize what is ostensibly their biggest threat in the contest—Kalil Mack—and look very much to be a team, and a defense, on the rise. Then a crucial injury in the secondary—Delvin Breaux’s broken leg—and the defense unravels. Amari Cooper comes to life, and in the closing seconds scores a two-point conversion over UDFA Ken Crawley to win the game.

The Saints played well, played through adversity, but in the end lacked the roster talent to make the game-changing plays. It didn’t help that the Raiders’ go-ahead touchdown drive included a dubious PI call on 4th down. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Saints were robbed of much this season. What games we lost, we lost.

The season kept on in much the same fashion. The Saints at times looked very competent, just enough so to give fans hope for the season. But they lost too many close games, lost too many players to injury. They lacked elite talent, especially on defense, and though they made up for this admirably with all-around solid execution and focus, they floundered in crucial situations.

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If the Saints can repeat their last minute, Week 17 heroics against the Falcons, they’ll take a step forward into 2017. They’ll be 8-8.

But chances are that they drop the game. Atlanta is playing as well as anybody right now. Either way, this team improved from a personnel standpoint. And most importantly, that growth seems to have come from the front office. Sean Payton and Loomis have not made the best personnel moves over the years, and above all else, it’s encouraging to see them taking steps in the right direction.

The season, of course, could have been worse.

Yes, injuries to a number of key Saints players derailed much of the team’s hopes. If you had to list the team’s most irreplaceable players, it’d go something like this. Drew Brees, Delvin Breaux, Cam Jordan, Terron Armstead, Dannell Ellerbe, Kenny Vaccaro, Max Unger. Besides Brees, every single one of those players battled injuries or suspensions all season long. Cam Jordan didn’t miss any games, but he played through a knee sprain early in the year that no doubt hindered his impact. Breaux and Armstead landed on IR. Ellerbe missed more than half the year with injuries. Vaccaro’s missed the last three games with a suspension. Unger has been relatively healthy, but missed a game with a foot injury and has been limited in practice.

Those injuries are tough to swallow. But like I said, it could have been worse. If anything happens to Drew Brees in 2017, no matter how much the rest of the roster improves, it’ll likely mean another year out of the playoffs. No one will blame Payton, but it’ll be frustrating nonetheless.

And if Jordan or Unger were forced to miss serious time, the team would likewise be in dire straights. Armstead may be the team’s best OL, but Unger is the least replaceable. And no player is more important to the defense than Jordan.

Next: Why the Falcons?

What I mean to say is, I expect this team will improve in 2017. But there’s no telling how injuries might derail the team again.

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