TAMPA, Fla. - For a team that had won four consecutive games and were on a decent roll going into their matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the fortunes of the New Orleans Saints changed rather quickly Sunday.
And almost as suddenly as Sean Payton had his left leg snapped by three players in an unfortunate sideline collision, the fortunes of the Bucs turned as well.
After limping all the way home from the West Coast six days earlier with a 48-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers sticking in the back of their minds, the Bucs looked more like the Saints.
And, unfortunately for New Orleans, the Saints looked more like the Bucs.
While they didn’t have trouble getting plays in from offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to quarterback Drew Brees, it was the other things that did the Saints in.
The long list was topped by four turnovers, including three interceptions by Brees, but their woes weren’t limited to that key number in a 26-20 setback to the wounded Bucs.
A 65-yard touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to wide receiver Arrelious Benn was way too easy, as was a 19-yard scoring strike from Freeman to Preston Parker.
Those plays were made easier by the lack of a Saints pass rush as they failed to sack Freeman and didn’t stop the run, letting backup running back Earnest Graham shake loose for 109 yards, including a 34-yard run.
Despite all the problems, the Saints had a chance to win in the final quarter after pulling to within 23-20 with 12:59 remaining in the game.
“Everybody stepped up and did a great job to make up for (the loss of Payton), and we battled,” Brees said. “We didn’t play our best football, but we battled and battled and battled. We had a chance in the end, and we just didn’t get it done.”
It was an opportunity to have a two-game lead in the NFC South with 10 games remaining.
Instead, the Saints are tied with the Bucs at 4-2, while the Atlanta Falcons are just a game back.
“It was a huge opportunity that we let slip away,” weakside linebacker Scott Shanle said. “You usually don’t get these type of opportunities this early in the season to do that.
“At the same time, there’s a lot of season left, and there are a lot of games to be played. That’s why you play the games, because they’ll sort themselves out.”
So now, it’s back to the drawing board for the Saints, who will have to get used to Payton being in the press box for the foreseeable future rather than on the sidelines as he recovers from a three-hour operation on Monday.
“We’re going to stick together. We’re going to fight through this adversity,” Brees said. “The train keeps rolling. This is a long season. It’s a marathon.
“We’re sitting here 4-2, dropped a divisional game on the road. It hurts, but there’s a lot of football left to be played. There’s no doubt we’ve got to get better. We will.”