TAMPA, Fla. — That beeping sound you heard from over here in Florida on Sunday was the New Orleans Saints backing into the NFC South division championship despite a 31-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs and their easy-to-despise quarterback, Jameis Winston, themselves backed into a garbage can but somehow came up smelling like a Tournament of Roses parade float. Winston uncorked three wretched interceptions, but made a brilliant throw when it counted most, a 39-yard New Year’s Eve fireworks shell that sizzled over Saints cornerback Ken Crawley and found receiver Chris Godwin with 9 seconds left for the winning touchdown.
In the end, the loss may have cost the Saints very little. In the pure mathematics of it, the Saints merely dropped one seed line in the NFC playoff tournament, from No. 3 to No. 4. That’s because in a delicious twist the Saints' hated archrivals, the Atlanta Falcons, did New Orleans a ginormous favor by knocking off Carolina 22-10 Sunday in a game played simultaneously in Atlanta.
That foiled the Panthers’ end run toward the NFC South title that it felt like the Saints locked up by beating Carolina and Atlanta during December. The Falcons and Panthers snapped up both of the NFC’s wild-card spots, with Carolina playing Sunday at New Orleans (3:40 p.m., Fox).
On balance the division title, just the sixth in this often downtrodden franchise’s 51-year history, is a remarkable achievement. That’s especially true considering the Saints started 0-2 with losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots, leaving New Orleans with slim, lottery-winning odds of making the playoffs.
Still, this is hardly the way you want to win the division — while losing. It’s like slipping into the green jacket at the Masters after hashing up the 18th hole by making a double bogey.
“That was one of our goals,” star defensive end Cam Jordan said of the division title amid a semi-subdued Saints locker room. “That was great to do. But we have higher goals. We can’t go out and overlook a team like this.
“They gave us their best punch, and we just acted like they weren’t there. That’s on us.”
The Saints would like to have marched into the playoffs with some swagger, some confidence, the look of a team charging forward rather than holding on for dear life. But they never looked like that in the final hours of 2017 on beautiful but sweat-soaked Florida afternoon.
Were it not for Alvin Kamara’s stutter-stepping 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Bucs’ first score, a franchise record, the Saints probably wouldn’t even have had a 24-23 lead to cling to when Tampa Bay started on its winning 95-yard touchdown march. The Bucs picked time and again on strong safety Vonn Bell, who replaced injured Kenny Vaccaro, as they piled up 455 total yards to the Saints’ 323.
“We’ve just got to finish,” Kamara said. “We’ve got to execute. A lot of things we did were self-inflicted.”
Despite their 4-11 record coming in, you had to expect the Bucs were going to give the Saints a fight. Against the Panthers and Falcons the past two weeks, Tampa Bay lost by only three points each time out.
The Bucs had self-inflicted wounds to overcome as well. Winston riddled the Saints defense for 363 yards passing while completing 28 of 51 attempts, but he threw three passes to the visitors in the white shirts. Two of the three found the welcoming arms of free safety Marcus Williams, the second one of those in the back of the end zone to snuff out a Bucs’ scoring threat when a field goal would have given them the lead.
Winston’s many mistakes were eventually trumped by his ability to make many big throws, and not just the winner to Godwin. The Bucs were 13 of 18 on third down, most of those conversions on Winston passes and scrambles. He also converted a fourth-down pass on the winning drive. Meanwhile, the Saints’ offense was sluggish at times, depending mightily on Kamara to shove them forward on runs and receptions.
New Orleans swept Carolina with a pair of double-digit victories during the regular season, including a 34-13 victory at Carolina that was the Saints’ first win and set them sail on the eight-game winning streak that defined their 2017 season.
One of the toughest things is to beat a good team twice. It’s even tougher to do it three times.
If New Orleans survives Round 3 with Carolina, the Saints will have to go on the road. Neither potential venue is particularly welcoming. If the Los Angeles Rams, now the No. 3 seed, beat Atlanta, the Saints would travel to face the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Falcons win, the Saints would go to play Minnesota, which looked a cut above New Orleans when they played way back in the season opener, a 29-19 Vikings win in Minneapolis.
If you had to pick the lesser of two evils, it would be to play the Eagles, who are without their budding superstar quarterback Carson Wentz, injured several weeks back. But that’s going a long way down the road from where the Saints are right now.
They need to get home, regroup, try to get a win, and make that beeping sound seem like an anomaly instead of a warning signal that their season is about to end.