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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees found a receiver who hadn’t played most of the season to sustain a late touchdown drive. The Saints‘ defense found a way to force two fumbles in the fourth quarter. And New Orleans’ punt-return unit stopped a fake punt less than a yard short of a conversion that might have helped Pittsburgh protect a late lead.Combine that with some good fortune on decisions by the officials Youth Vonn Bell Jersey , and it added up to a third straight fourth-quarter comeback for these charmed 2018 Saints, who’ll finish the regular season as the best team in the NFC.Brees capped a 326-yard passing performance with 2-yard touchdown toss to Michael Thomas with 1:25 left, Sheldon Rankins stripped JuJu Smith-Schuster in the final minute, and the Saints clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs with a 31-28 victory over the Steelers that dealt a significant blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes.“That’s one thing these guys have done a good job with, coming up with plays when we needed it. We’ve won a lot of different ways this year,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after New Orleans (13-2) reached 13 victories for the third time since he became coach in 2006. “I’m proud of this team. Man, they’ve showed a great resolve — dealt with injuries, dealt with all the adversity you might have in a long season.”Pittsburgh drove into potential tying field-goal range on its final drive, but Smith-Schuster fumbled while landing on Rankins after a short reception and linebacker Demario Davis recovered.“One thing you know about this team is we’re resilient,” Rankins said.Alvin Kamara gained 105 yards from scrimmage and ran for two touchdowns for New Orleans. Receiver Tedd Ginn Jr., playing for the first time since Week 4, caught a 25-yard pass on third-and-20 during the Saints’ go-ahead series.The late rally came after New Orleans kept it close with two crucial fourth-quarter stops. Safety Kurt Coleman forced Pittsburgh’s first fourth-quarter turnover when he stripped Stevan Ridley and defensive end Alex Okafor recovered in Saints territory.The Steelers briefly preserved their four-point lead when L.J. Fort blocked Wil Lutz’s 50-yard field goal attempt with 6:16 left. But New Orleans quickly forced a fourth-and-5 and then stopped upback Roosevelt Nix a yard short of a first down when he took the snap on a fake punt with a little more than four minutes to go.“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I like the play.”Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns for the Steelers (8-6-1), connecting 14 times with Antonio Brown for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh fell into second in the AFC North behind Baltimore and out of playoff position.The Steelers could still win the division with a victory next week and a loss by the Ravens. Their path to a wild card is unlikely at best because it would require Indianapolis and Tennessee to tie. Pittsburgh’s loss also clinched a playoff spot for the AFC South-leading Houston Texans.“We’re playing pretty good football, but it might not matter,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously we don’t control our destiny anymore. We have to take care of business next week.“You can be as skillful as you want on both sides of the ball and special teams, but there is still a small element of luck involved in football. A play here, a play there. If that’s what it is, I don’t know, but it’s the game of football.”New Orleans went up 24-14 in the third quarter when Kamara dove over blockers at the line of scrimmage, capping a drive highlighted by his career-long 42-yard reception.But the Steelers seized momentum back with a nine-play, 75 yard drive that included three passes to Brown, the last a 3-yard TD toss. Pittsburgh then took a 28-24 led with on its next drive, which again ended with a TD pass to Brown, who split double coverage by Coleman and Marshon Lattimore for his 20-yard score.FLAG FORTUNEThe Saints’ final scoring drive was aided by a pass interference call on fourth down Vonn Bell Jersey Stitched , marking the third Saints touchdown drive of the game aided by such a call.The first also came on a fourth-down play in the first quarter when Joe Haden placed his hand on Kamara’s back on a pass that appeared overthrown.“I don’t know what they saw. I just tried to jump up and go get the ball,” Haden said. “It’s an offensive game. You can’t touch these guys. … I’m very frustrated.”A play later, Mark Ingram scored from a yard out for his franchise-record 50th rushing touchdown, surpassing Deuce McAllister’s mark set in 2008.KICKING STREAKBefore Lutz had a kick blocked, he made his franchise-record 26th straight field goal, surpassing the Saints mark set by Hall of Famer Morten Andersen during the 1992 and ’93 seasons.BEN AND BROWNRoethlisberger now has 33 TDs passing, breaking his single-season mark of 32 set in 2007 and 2014.Brown clinched a sixth straight season with at least 100 catches — making him the only NFL receiver to do so — and six straight seasons with 1,200 yards receiving. He also has 15 touchdown catches, surpassing his career best.INJURIESSteelers: Nickel cornerback Mike Hilton was examined in the blue tent by team medical staff but returned to action. … Starting linebacker Vince Williams left the game in the second half.Saints: Left tackle Terron Armstead left the game in the first half, returned to action a few series later, but then left the game again for good in the second half. After that, Andrus Peat moved to left tackle and rookie Will Clapp took over at left guard.UP NEXTSteelers: Host Cincinnati on Sunday, needing a win to have any hope of advancing to the playoffs.Saints: Finish the season at home against Carolina on Sunday. How will next year's free agents affect the Saints 2019 draft strategy?"The New Orleans Saints look poised to make another run at a championship in 2019. So far this offseason, they have re-signed many of their own free agents like kicker Wil Lutz, linebacker Craig Robertson, and defensive backs Chris Banjo and Justin Hardee to maintain a solid special teams squad and good depth on an up and coming defense. That defense looks potentially stronger, even with the loss of end Alex Okafor, with the added signings of defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards Jr. The Saints offense hopes to offset the sting of losing productive veterans Mark Ingram, Max Unger, and Benjamin Watson with the apparent signing of tight end Jared Cook along with running back Latavius Murray and offensive lineman Nick Easton. The talented Saints possess one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, and face a few tough contractual decisions over the next couple of seasons. Many teams make their free agent and draft decisions based not only on what holes may need addressed on their current roster, but also keeping in mind future potential free agent losses. Based off their current roster status, here is a list of the current New Orleans players whose contracts expire after the upcoming 2019 season. (Contract numbers obtained from ) UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS Michael Thomas, WRDrew Brees, QBTeddy Bridgewater Youth Andrus Peat Jersey , QBDavid Onyemata, DTVonn Bell, SSAndrus Peat, GA.J. Klein, LBCameron Meredith, WRZach Line, FBDwayne Washington, RBMarcus Sherels, CB/PRMichael Ola, OTKen Crawley, CBDerek Newton, OTRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS Cameron Tom, C/G Justin Hardee, CBTaysom Hill, QBDan Arnold, TE Austin Carr, WR Vince Biegel, LBZach Wood, LSTEAM OPTION Sheldon Rankins, DTEli Apple, CBPhoto by Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe Saints biggest decision, outside of number 9 and the quarterback position of course, isregarding Thomas. The 26-yr. old wideout has established himself as one of the best offensive weapons in the game. He led the NFL in receptions in 2018, and has set both team and league records for his production. Thomas will almost certainly command an average yearly salary of over 20 million dollars per year in a new deal, and will probably be the highest paid receiver in the game once signing a new contract. New Orleans may try to negotiate a new contract with Thomas during the season Andrus Peat Jersey Stitched , but if a new deal cannot be reached then the All-Pro wideout is certainly a candidate for a franchise tag before he would hit the open market. Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesOnyemata and Bell are two players who have improved in each of their three seasons, and now enter a contract year on the cusp of setting up big paydays. Onyemata, who will earn 2.16 million in 2019, could face a league suspension for a misdemeanor marijuana arrest in February, is expected to be a disruptive inside force for the defense with Rankins likely to miss the first portion of the year. Bell has finished first or second on the team in tackles in each of his three years, and and has improved his coverage skills in each of those years. He will count 1.26 million against the cap in 2019, and has been one of the defense's most consistent players. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportsSome have suggested that Peat, the 13th overall pick of the 2015 draft, could be a potential cap casualty this offseason. His base salary escalates from 1.99 million in 2018 to 9.63m this season, but all of that would be dead cap space if New Orleans were to release him at any time. Klein will count 6 million dollars against the Saints salary cap this season, with a base salary of 4.1 million. If New Orleans were to release him before June 1, they would save 3.6 million against the cap, but create 2.4 in dead space. A release after June 1st however would create 4.6 million in cap space for this season, but cause 1.4 million in dead cap for 2019, with an additional 1 million in dead cap space for 2020. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThis is not to suggest that the Saints move on from Peat or Klein prior to the 2019 season. Both players, as have many on this list, have been instrumental to the team's success over the last two seasons. We've all seen general manager Mickey Loomis and the New Orleans front office juggle contracts and players many times over the years though, and as noted there are some potentially huge contracts that this franchise is facing over the next couple of seasons. The Saints do not currently have a pick in the 1st, 3rd, or 4th rounds of next month's draft, but do have a total of six draft picks. The team looks poised to make another Super Bowl run, with a roster deep in talent at nearly every position, even though Jared Cook has yet to officially sign his contract with the team. New Orleans will certainly address some of their remaining needs with the picks that they use, but how they use those picks may also give us an insight into pending free agent decisions into the 2020 season.
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