The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS – It’s apparently no accident that Saints receiver Emmanuel Sanders is wrapping up his first season in New Orleans with a chance to reach his fourth Super Bowl – all with different teams.
“I just think I positioned myself on good teams,” Sanders said after practice on Wednesday. “If you pay attention to football you’ll know – like, once you hit free agency – you’ll know there’s probably, like, four or five teams, even at the beginning of the season, that have got a legit shot at winning the Super Bowl. So, I’ve always looked at it from that situation.”
The Saints (11-4) clinched the NFC South last week, thanks in part to Sanders’ four catches for a team-leading 83 yards in a 52-33 victory over Minnesota.
On Sunday, the Saints visit Carolina with a chance to lock up the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed with a victory. New Orleans could even sneak into the top spot if Green Bay loses and Seattle wins to force a three-way tie in which the Saints would hold the tiebreaker.
Now in his 11th season, Sanders has found ways to influence the Saints’ success without always racking up individual statistics. He has 52 catches for 663 yards and four touchdowns – well below his career highs of 1,404 yards and nine TDs with Denver in 2014.
But he continues to demonstrate an ability to keep defences honest as a deep threat and come up with big catches at pivotal moments – something Carolina coach Matt Rhule has noticed.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Rhule said. “The Saints have such a great passing game, precision passing game, timing passing game. To have someone who can excel in that area and also be a deep threat who can stretch the field, to me, that opens everything else up for everyone else.
“He brings a dimension to them that obviously on defence we have to be prepared for every single moment and I think he’s really played well for them,” Rhule added.
Sanders made his first Super Bowl as a rookie with Pittsburgh. That, he said, was good fortune. But when he became a free agent in 2014, he said he chose Denver over Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Kansas City because he thought the Broncos, who then had Peyton Manning at quarterback, provided the best chance to win. In his second season in Denver, he became a Super Bowl champion.
Last season, he was in the Super Bowl with another team, albeit more by chance. He was traded by Denver to San Francisco during the season.
This off-season, he left the 49ers for the Saints, even with potential contenders Green Bay and Buffalo bidding for his services.
“I had all good teams that was looking for me to be there, but it was just really about my happiness,” said Sanders, who grew up along the Gulf Coast in Houston and noted that he’d “always loved Drew Brees and Sean Payton.”
Sanders didn’t get quite what he signed up for in New Orleans. He was expected to be part of a potent passing offence alongside 2019 Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas. But Thomas will miss his ninth game on Sunday. Brees also missed four games with rib and lung injuries. And after contracting COVID-19 earlier this season, Sanders had to miss two games in which Brees played.
“Even with all that, though, we’re still sitting here with the opportunity to get the No. 1 seed, with an opportunity to get two home playoff games,” Sanders said. “So, one thing I tell my wife all the time about expectations – sometimes expectations aren’t good.
“I know that the media had expectations of Emmanuel Sanders and Michael Thomas getting together. It’s going to be a crazy year passing, Drew Brees, this and that,” Sanders continued. “But at the end of the day … we still clinched the playoffs, still clinched the division and we’ve got everything ahead of us that we want to attain.”
His teammates sound pleased Sanders is there to help in the biggest moments.
“I’m a huge Emmanuel Sanders fan – huge,” left tackle Terron Armstead said, commenting on everything from the precision of Sanders’ route-running to his veteran savvy and locker-room leadership. “He hasn’t always had the big numbers week in and week out, but that’s never a problem.
“I love what he brings to the team, him as a person, as a player,” Armstead added. “We’re blessed to have him.”