By the time Drew Brees and Brandin Cooks failed to connect on a last-ditch effort on the final play of the game, it felt like all the good things the New Orleans Saints defense manufactured in the first half happened during their Week 3 meeting with the Carolina Panthers, not Sunday afternoon.

Once sorting through all the highs and lows left on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf, the overall result was commendable. The often hapless Saints (4-8) took the undefeated and NFC South champion Panthers to the wire and came within a few plays of winning. They instead lost 41-38.

At this point in the season, with the odds of making the postseason about as good as Rob Ryan getting a call this week to return to New Orleans, commendable has to be good enough. That’s why after the game, Brees stood at the lectern and talked about how he’s focused only on having this team get as good as he thinks it can be.

A habitual optimist, even Brees knows that the final record is now meaningless. This team will keep competing and keep trying to get better and keep trying to win, but close but not quite is going to be as good as it gets.

“Let’s just put the record aside for a moment,” Brees said. “Mathematically, I don’t know what the chances are or anything else about making it to the postseason. What I care about is: At the end of the season, are we as good of a team as we know we can be?”

That’s not to say this team is OK with how Sunday turned out or is out celebrating a moral victory. The locker room was down after the game. This reality — one of being a losing team with better odds of ending up with a top-five pick than ending up .500 — is a hard reality.

It’s a reality filled with disappointment and confusion, depressing lows and frustration, false starts and broken promises. It’s a reality none of these players wants to be experiencing, and few have answers of how to escape it. That’s probably why Brees has turned his focus to achieving an attainable goal, otherwise he’d be forced to stare down the hopelessness of the next four weeks.

Some players can’t help but look right into it. How can they not? Only the most disciplined eyes can look away and focus on other things. The rest of us take the whole thing in. That’s why after the game, running back Mark Ingram stammered and scoffed a few times before getting out an answer about the outcome of the game.

“It sucks,” Ingram said. “Pretty much. We had a lot of good things happening that hadn’t been happening. It sucks.”

And when looking away from the moments and taking in the panoramic view, it’s clear the Saints probably should have won Sunday afternoon. They produced three turnovers — one of which Stephone Anthony returned for a touchdown — and blocked an extra point that Anthony took back for another two points.

The offense couldn’t take advantage. New Orleans went into halftime up 16-13, despite ample opportunity to run away with the game. Once the offense got going in the second half, things fell apart for the defense, and the broken coverages and communication errors that have defined this season took hold.

Really, the game was a microcosm of the entire season. Outside of games against Atlanta and Indianapolis, New Orleans has struggled to get its offense and defense operating at a high level at the same time.

The perceived distance between the first half and the second half had players on the offense feeling better about the performance than the guys on defense. By the time the locker room opened, safety Jairus Byrd sat at his locker perplexed by the ongoing issues experienced by this unit.

“When I look at the film, it’s responsibility-type stuff. It’s fundamentals that we definitely got to make sure we go over,” Byrd said. “I feel like at the end of the day, we have to take it upon ourselves to know what we’re doing. We’re making mistakes that shouldn’t be made.

“It comes down to us as players. You can’t say it’s scheme. It’s us as players. We have to make sure we’re all locked in and doing our responsibility and knowing what we got to do.”

Those issues helped lead to the downfall of this team Sunday, as much as the offensive woes weighed down the first half. Broken coverages, or in some cases a lack of coverage, allowed tight end Greg Olsen to get wide open too many times or a wide receiver to get open down the field.

A particular low point came on a third down when New Orleans was in its prevent defense and allowed wide receiver Ted Ginn to get wide open between Byrd and cornerback Brandon Browner.

Byrd wouldn’t discuss the play after the game, but the secondary — and Browner in particular — is lucky Ginn, who dropped two sure touchdowns, doesn’t have better hands.

The details will be ugly when the team reviews the game film Monday, and perhaps the secondary’s breakdown was made worse since cornerback Delvin Breaux was knocked out of action with a hamstring injury in the first half.

It certainly couldn’t have helped and the pressure on the secondary was higher than usual since the front seven blitzed more than usual. Perhaps asking guys like Chris Owens and Brian Dixon to play a major role was unreasonable.

But the issues at some point need to go away. How can that happen?

“I don’t know; I can’t really tell you how you fix it,” Byrd said. “Everyone to a man has to know what you’re doing.”

If the team takes Brees’ advice, that’s what the whole team will be in pursuit of figuring out. After 12 games, it’s obvious the answers won’t be found easily. But they’ll look for them.

Realistically, outside of determining draft position, the wins and losses won’t really matter. This team will try to win those games, of course. But what will really matter are the moments when the team figures things out and finds solutions.