Of all the things that went badly for the Saints during their 26-20 loss to Tampa Bay yesterday - from Sean Payton breaking his leg to Drew Brees' three interceptions to Josh Freeman passing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns - probably nothing was more devastating, or indicative of the Saints' play, than the last defensive series.
Brees had just kneecapped what had been an otherwise stellar drive with his interception in Tampa's end zone but the Saints' defense had a shot to force a three-and-out and get the ball back for their offense. Instead, Freeman completed a 17-yard pass on third-and-nine and then Earnest Graham ran for 19 yards on the next two plays and that was it. The game was over.
For the first time since the Saints were stuffed at the goal line on the last play of their season opener against Green Bay, New Orleans failed to make plays when they absolutely, positively needed to make them. The most telling statistic was the offenses' anemic third-down conversion rate (the Saints went 4-of-14 on third down) and the defenses' inability to register a sack or a turnover. This on a day when the Saints' defense gave up 453 yards and the offense turned the ball over four times.
Lots of credit must go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of course. Facing a slew of injuries and coming off a blowout loss, Freeman and Co. were able to keep the Saints on their heels all game long. At no point did it seem like New Orleans was in control and, even if you're one of the best teams in the league at coming from behind, you can't be expected to do it all day long.
Players and coaches will talk about missed opportunities (how many interceptions slipped through the hands of Saints' defensive backs?) and fans will parse over every little detail on plays and how they may have gone different (just imagine the conversation we'd be having if Brees had found Robert Meachem in the back of the end-zone on that fourth-down play instead of throwing an interception). But there's just no denying that the Saints didn't do as much to win yesterday's game as they did to lose it.
Not that this is a time for panic. The Saints are still at 4-2 and still tied for the division lead. Not only that, but they get the winless Indianapolis Colts to take out their frustrations on this Sunday. Surely, we can expect the Saints to win this weekend. But we also expected them to not shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly yesterday in a game that could have secured sole possession of the NFC South lead and put them on a comfortable track to make the playoffs.
New Orleans, it seems, is struggling to regain their championship swagger a little more than anyone expected them to struggle. Let's just hope that this weekend's game was a bump in the road and not a sign of things to come.