Saints Buccaneers Football

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) beats New Orleans Saints cornerback Ken Crawley (20) for a touchdown reception during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The Buccaneers defeated the Saints 31-24. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken) ORG XMIT: TPS

Jason Behnken

There's one thing to remember: If the New Orleans Saints do what they want to do and fill in the blank banner coach Sean Payton recently hung inside the team’s indoor practice facility, no one will ever remember what happened during the regular-season finale.

But the final opportunity to find out what the team's defense is without linebacker A.J. Klein, safety Kenny Vaccaro and others was a disappointment given the standard set and that the measuring stick is now what will happen in February. And the way New Orleans played during Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers isn’t the kind of performance that gets things done.

“Obviously, we didn’t finish the game the way we would have liked to have,” Payton said.

He could have just as easily made the same statement about the way the season ended.

The Saints left everyone with an uneven performance heading into a playoff game against the Carolina Panthers. This, coming off the heels of what might have been one of the better performances of the season last week against the Atlanta Falcons.

What is the defense's identity? Was the first game without both Klein and Vaccaro the real deal or was this second, underwhelming one closer to the truth? Is it somewhere in the middle? Was the team just not up for this game against the Bucs? Did Tampa Bay have a perfect plan? Maybe there's a little bit of truth in all questions. The only thing anyone can be certain of is that Sunday's performance was underwhelming.

In the end, all of the concern stemming from Sunday's loss might end up being for nothing. The defense has been good in almost every single game since Week 2, save for a game against the Los Angeles Rams when both Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley were out. This one shouldn't be any different. But it's hard to make any definitive statements when we don't even know if losing put the Saints on a better road through the playoffs.

If the Rams beat the Falcons next week and the Saints beat Carolina, then the Saints face a Philadelphia Eagles team without quarterback Carson Wentz for a trip to the NFC title game. On paper, that looks easier than facing the Falcons and Minnesota Vikings in the first two rounds.

But that’s all hypothetical for now. The only thing New Orleans needs to worry about is shoring up a performance that wasn’t good enough on offense, defense or special teams. It won’t matter whom the Saints play if this was anything more than a hiccup.

Allowing 13 of 18 third downs to be converted isn’t good, even if Tampa Bay was the best third-down team in the NFL during the last month of the regular season. Getting off the field hasn’t been a consistent issue for New Orleans, but it’s not something you want to see when things are supposed to be getting tuned up. And allowing 101 yards rushing in the first half and a game-winning 95-yard touchdown drive isn’t up to standard.

It was also probably disheartening to see some coverage busts, missed tackles and mental errors. That stuff hasn’t happened with any regularity since the second week of the season. Again, probably an aberration considering how things played out all season, but not what you want to see in Week 17, even if there were some timely turnovers interspersed throughout the game.

The Saints are confident this is just one game and there are enough pieces of the defense standing to get back on track. Chances are, they're right. But there are a handful of things this team needs to improve on the fly as it chases a second Lombardi Trophy. And the players know it.

"It would have been much different in that locker room, emotionally, had we won that game, but bottom line is, I think we recognize that there are still things we need to work on and continue to improve upon so we can be at our best as we get into the playoffs here," quarterback Drew Brees said.

Let's start at the beginning. New Orleans surrendered a score on the opening drive of the game, bringing the rate of scores given up on the opening drive to 62.5 percent (five touchdowns and five field goals). Entering Sunday, New Orleans had only allowed a score on 30.3 percent of all other drives. The defense needs to do a better job of weathering the opposition’s scripted plays and stand strong moving forward.

Offensively, third down remains a roller coaster. Sunday, the offense converted on 50 percent, which was a step in the right direction, but it hasn’t been good enough overall. Maybe at this point in the year, it just “is what it is,” but that doesn’t mean the effort to find a solution should cease. And Sunday, the overall efficiency just wasn’t there on any down. After a big-time drive in the fourth quarter to retake the lead, the offense couldn’t follow up with another one.

The punt return fumbled by Tommylee Lewis that led to a Tampa Bay touchdown was a killer. It looked like special teams were going to be a highlight of the game after Alvin Kamara raced to a 106-yard score, but it all proved to be downhill from there.

None of the previous three issues were unique to this game. Those have been trouble areas all season long. The Saints might be able to withstand the issues and win games. It would be a whole lot easier to play into February if a cure is located this week.

The regular season is over. Everyone in the postseason is 0-0. It looks like a path might be there for the Saints. Now they just need to find a way to get back on track and navigate it after a lackluster finish to the first act.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​