DETROIT — Sean Payton found out that losses like these can lead to second-guessing from the peanut gallery. They’re the kind of defeats that can swallow up good teams and leave players feeling snake-bitten.
People will wonder why you did this instead of that. They’ll ask what the quarterback was looking at or what a defensive back was thinking. Players will get frustrated. The media will demand answers. Fans will lash out at players on social media and expend four of their allotted 140 characters on Twitter on derogatory terms.
That’s what happens when you find a way to turn one of your best performances of the season into a baffling 24-23 loss to a Detroit Lions team that was without its best player, All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson. And that’s what Payton found out after walking off the Ford Field turf Sunday.
He was asked for his take on all of the pertinent moments, but one zealous inquisitor was determined to find out why the Saints did not run the ball on third-and-9 with a little more than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, up 23-17, a call that resulted in Drew Brees throwing an interception.
Payton responded by sharing his thought process on why he decided to pass.
“Three minutes, thirty seconds, three timeouts,” he said. “That’s like seven minutes. Next question — next smart question.”
Football theory aside, it’s a natural point to focus on when trying to diagnose how this Motor City meltdown occurred. That was the beginning of the end, where a spectacular performance transformed into a spectacular loss.
To that point, New Orleans (2-4) had played its best 57 minutes of football this season. The defense generated two interceptions and was getting after Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. And despite tight end Jimmy Graham being a nonfactor because of his shoulder injury, Brees (28-of-45, 342 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) was moving the ball through the air with little resistance.
But that’s when the Detroit (5-2) pass rush, the vaunted group that led the league in sacks entering Sunday’s game and was getting to the quarterback on every 2.13 dropbacks, decided to come to life. To that point, Brees had only been pressured, sacked or hit on 15 of his first 38 dropbacks, in part to his getting rid of the ball in an average of 2.49 seconds.
That changed on the pivotal third-and-9 play. Lions defensive end George Johnson beat Saints left tackle Terron Armstead off the edge, which caused Brees to speed up and force a pass to Marques Colston 3.25 seconds after receiving the snap. Safety Glover Quin, who in the Lions’ play call had the freedom to move wherever he needed to, was able to jump in front of it and intercept the pass.
“The worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down,” Brees said. “And that’s the way I feel right now with that interception.”
Detroit took over at the New Orleans 14-yard line and used the next six plays and a pass interference call to add another touchdown and take a 24-23 lead. The Saints got the ball back with 1:48 remaining but were unable to get anything going. Brees was only able to complete two of his final seven attempts as the drive stalled — and one of those passes lost a yard.
It likely did not help that he faced pressure on four of those attempts, three of which were created by defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.
“I think we kept them at bay part of the game,” Saints right guard Jahri Evans said. “And sometimes they won a few. Give credit to them; they finished the game strong.”
Strong enough to turn the Saints’ best performance of the season into a stunning loss. Until that point, it almost seemed as if Payton and his men were determined to check off every item they had been criticized for this season.
Not enough turnovers? Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro had interceptions.
Brees can’t throw deep passes? He hit Kenny Stills in stride for a 46-yard touchdown down the sideline.
The receivers aren’t involved enough? Stills and Colston combined to catch 11 passes for 214 yards.
Can’t put together a 60-minute effort? That’s where the ink ran out of the Saints’ pen, just minutes from the finish line.
Many of those positives likely came up in the postgame meeting, and the Saints believes they can build off those things.
“I visited with them in the locker room,” Payton said. “They’re resilient. I think the tough thing about it is the work and their preparation leading into the game is everything we wanted. We just have to be able to finish. That’s as much coaches as it is players.”
Now, instead of being fully galvanized by a strong performance, the Saints instead will spend time figuring out how they managed to lose this one. That’s not the position they want to be in with games against the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals up next.
The only saving grace is that all of the teams in the NFC South are struggling to get over .500. But right now, Payton said he isn’t banking on the division remaining weak.
“The view has to be internal,” he said.
Right now, it’s probably difficult to decipher how to feel about this performance. There are plenty of positives to be found, but the bottom line is this team figured out how to lose.
The Saints say they won’t let the devastating nature of the finish impact them, but they are getting fed up with how the season is going.
“I’ve been down this road before, when it’s been win one and lose one,” Evans said. “We jut have to go there and win Monday, win Wednesday and win Thursday, win in our preparation during the week and come out against Green Bay and execute.”
Evans left out the part about executing for a full 60 minutes, but that likely goes without saying after Sunday’s performance.