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METAIRIE, La. — There might not be a single NFL statistic this year that makes less sense than the New Orleans Saints’ third-down numbers.

The Saints rank 19th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (37.6 percent). And they rank a stunning 31st when it comes to converting third downs of 3-5 yards (34.8 percent). The Saints led the NFL in both of those categories throughout the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era from 2006 to 2016.

And it’s not as if the Saints’ offense has suddenly become less efficient. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Saints led the NFL in both yards per pass attempt (7.5) and yards per rush (4.7) while ranking second in the league in total yards per game (391.2).

Brees set the NFL record for completion percentage in a single season (72.0 percent). Sure-handed receiver Michael Thomas set a franchise record with 104 catches. And running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara became the first duo in NFL history to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“It’s kind of tough, really. Our offense is known for being one of the top offenses, and you look at our third-down numbers and we’re in the bottom third of the league,” said offensive tackle Terron Armstead, who was explaining that the key is getting into more favorable third-and-short situations by avoiding penalties and negative plays on first and second downs.

But then when it was pointed out how bad the Saints have been on third-and-3 through third-and-5, Armstead was flummoxed.

“Oh. … Really? Yeah that is [crazy]. That doesn’t make any sense,” Armstead said. “We look for those.”

Regardless of whether it makes any sense, Armstead and everyone on the Saints’ offense and coaching staff is well-aware of how important it is to turn things around in that area. It has been a huge point of emphasis for months.

“We’ve focused on it. We’ve put a conscious effort to improve those third-down numbers. And we’ll have to in these playoffs in order to make a legitimate run,” Armstead said.

Brees is confident that the Saints aren’t that far off. He said that, looking at every third-down play, there might be one or two in each game that “we should’ve made” — plus the times in field-goal range or victory formations when the Saints didn’t need to force anything.

“And if we make those, tack on the percentage points and we would be the No. 1 third-down offense in the league, which is what we’re used to being,” Brees said. “But the bottom line is I’ll focus on the ones that I know from game to game — hey, there was one or two that we should’ve had there.

“And obviously when you talk about attention to detail and room for error, when you get into the playoffs, you want to be as efficient as possible in those areas because that can be the difference between winning and losing.”

One obvious difference from years past is that receiver Willie Snead has had a down season and become a very minor part of the offense after leading the team with exactly 25 catches on third down in both 2015 and 2016.

Thomas (a team-high 28 catches on third downs this year), Kamara (21) and new receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (14) have helped pick up some of the slack. But defenses swarm Thomas in those situations, so Brees could use as many go-to options as possible.
That’s not the only issue, though, because Brees’ numbers aren’t actually that bad on third downs. He ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Info (94.2) with a completion percentage of 67.8, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

“We’ve got to do a better job of emphasizing it at practice and putting the right plan together,” Payton said. “When you look at the cut-up of the whole season, it’ll be a number of reasons. It might be a route error, it might be protection, it might be throw. Whatever it is, though, we’ve got to look closely at it and look to get to the things that we think [will succeed].

“One week you might get more man [coverage], and one week you might get more zone coverage. So there’s a handful of things teams will play in that down and distance. It might be more pressure. So being able to have a plan that handles all the above, and then executing it, is the priority.”

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The NFL has finalized its schedule for Week 17, eliminating the Sunday night game so as to ensure that all matchups with playoff implications that affect one another will be played at the same time.

The last time the NFL regular season didn’t end with a night game, either on Sunday or Monday, was in 1977 — the last season with a 14-game schedule. The last time the final NFL Sunday fell on New Year’s Eve was 2006.
Games on both Fox and CBS have been affected this year, with Fox flexing both NFC South games. Due in part to a back-loaded divisional schedule, the NFC South remains the only division that has not yet been clinched. The New Orleans Saints’ game at Tampa Bay has been moved from 1 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. ET. The same goes for the Panthers-Falcons meeting in Atlanta.

Both New Orleans (11-4) and Carolina (11-4) clinched playoff berths Sunday, with the Saints needing either a win over the Bucs (4-11) or a loss by the Panthers next week to clinch the division. Carolina can claim the NFC South with a win over Atlanta and a Saints loss.

The Falcons (9-6) can’t win the division but can advance to the playoffs by beating the Panthers.

On CBS, Bengals-Ravens, Bills-Dolphins and Jaguars-Titans also have been moved to 4:25 p.m.

The Ravens (9-6), Titans (8-7) and Bills (8-7) are all fighting for a wild card, while the Jaguars already clinched the AFC South.

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“We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET windows,” NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz said. “This ensures that we do not have a matchup on Sunday Night Football on New Year’s Eve that because of earlier resu
“We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET windows,” NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz said. “This ensures that we do not have a matchup on Sunday Night Football on New Year’s Eve that because of earlier results has no playoff implications for one or both of the competing teams.”

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New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara returned to full practice participation Wednesday and told reporters he is “good to go” for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.

In order to get full clearance through the NFL’s concussion protocol, Kamara has to pass all steps, which includes showing that he can tolerate full participation in practice without signs or symptoms.

But his words and his return to practice both indicate that he is on the right track.
Kamara left last Thursday night’s 20-17 loss at Atlanta after a helmet-to-helmet tackle by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in the first quarter. He was evaluated by trainers on the sideline before being taken back to the locker room for further evaluation and ultimately ruled out of the game.

Kamara, a third-round draft pick from Tennessee, has emerged as the front-runner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with 608 rushing yards, 639 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He is already just the third rookie in NFL history to surpass 600 rushing and receiving yards in a season with three games to go.

Kamara has been especially dynamic since the Saints’ Week 5 bye. He ranks second in the NFL behind only Le’Veon Bell in that span with 1,017 yards from scrimmage, and he is tied with teammate Mark Ingram for the league lead with nine touchdowns since Week 6.

Alvin Kamara is tied with teammate Mark Ingram for the league lead with nine touchdowns since Week 6.

Alvin Kamara is tied with teammate Mark Ingram for the league lead with nine touchdowns since Week 6.

Kamara and Ingram are on pace to become the first pair of running backs in NFL history to surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season.

Three Saints players did not practice Wednesday, however, after being injured in the loss to Atlanta: receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (rib), linebacker A.J. Klein (groin) and defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle).

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METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints released a statement Thursday saying it is “unfortunate and disappointing” that a retired Navy commander who declined an honor at Sunday’s game has been telling media outlets he no longer supports NFL football because of player protests throughout the league before and during the national anthem.

“We will not allow Mr. [John] Wells’ decision and subsequent media appearances to distract our players and organization from continuing to honor and support our military and veterans,” the Saints said in their statement, which stressed the organization’s “unwavering 50-plus year commitment to honor, support and recognize our servicemen and women and veterans.”

In the statement, the Saints also emphasized their players have stood for the anthem in every game since the franchise’s inception in 1967, with the exception of “the Week Three game at Carolina when a few of our players did sit.”
Since then, Saints players have chosen to kneel before the anthem in a display of unity, then stand during the anthem. Still, many fans have booed the kneeling players inside the Superdome even though the booing has not taken place during the anthem.

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cameron Jordan touched upon this on their Twitter accounts Thursday, with Vaccaro writing, “Our crowd boos us before the anthem, therefore it’s not about the flag, it’s about the fact we are bringing awareness to a cause that makes people uncomfortable.”

Jordan tweeted about how fans have “ignored” the reason behind the player protests.
Wells, who is the executive director of the national Military Veterans Advocacy in Slidell, Louisiana, was selected as a Peoples Health Champion, an award given at Saints home games to recognize “the exceptional achievements of Louisiana residents age 65 and older.”

Since Week 4, Saints players have chosen to kneel before the national anthem in a display of unity and then stand during the anthem.

Since Week 4, Saints players have chosen to kneel before the national anthem in a display of unity and then stand during the anthem.

However, Wells declined the honor, calling the protests during the anthem a “slap in the face to veterans” in a news release and saying he could not “in good conscience” enter an NFL stadium.

“Although I am touched and honored to be selected for such an award, the ongoing controversy with NFL players’ disrespect for the national flag forces me to decline to participate in the presentation,” Wells said according to the release. “Since this award is tainted with the dishonorable actions of the NFL and its players, I cannot accept it.”

The Saints released their lengthy statement in response on Thursday afternoon:
“Respectfully and honorably, we chose Mr. Wells for the Peoples Health Champion Award purposefully for this game to bring to light the exact issues that he and his organization represent — the health and well-being of our military, veterans and their families. Unfortunately, he has chosen very publicly not to accept this honor and refused the opportunity to promote the very cause for which he was being honored and distract from awareness we hoped to build throughout our community. We respect his decision, he has that right, and we thank him for his service to our country and his past efforts on behalf of the military and veterans.”

The Saints went on to list the community appearances and financial commitments the team has made to military and related organizations, and to stress that owner Tom Benson — a former Naval officer — has been honored and recognized as a longtime supporter of the military. They said they would use the time at Sunday’s game that had been allotted for Wells’ award to “highlight non-political military advocacy programs and encourage our fans and community to join us in contributing to these groups who directly support our military and veterans.”