Saints Buccaneers Football

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) points out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius) 

Steve Nesius

TAMPA, Fla. — The Saints lost on the scoreboard Sunday.

But, despite a lackluster effort, maybe they really won.

We'll know the answer to that in the next few weeks as the Saints make their first playoff journey since 2013.

Although the scoreboard said Bucs 31, Saints 24, New Orleans still left Raymond James Stadium with an NFC South division title.

The Saints can thank their good friends in Atlanta for that. The Falcons beat the Panthers on Sunday to secure the Saints' sixth division title in franchise history and first since 2011.

The Saints get to play the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs with hopes of going 3-0 this season against Cam Newton and Company.

A win against the Panthers could send the Saints to play the Carson Wentz-less Eagles. (That's assuming the Falcons don't go to Los Angeles and upset the Rams, which would then send the Saints to Minnesota and the lower-seeded Falcons to Philly).

The Saints' playoff destination wasn't decided until the final seconds of the regular season.

They entered the games assured a playoff berth, thanks to last week's Dome-rocking victory over the Falcons.

But where exactly would the Saints begin their path to the Super Bowl was still unclear before Sunday.

Would they be in home in the Dome? Or would they have to make another trip to Charlotte, North Carolina? Or perhaps a trip out west to Los Angeles to play the Rams again?

When the day began, the Saints could have been anywhere from a the No. 3 seed to No. 5 seed in the NFC. The Panthers, who like the Saints were trying to win the NFC South, could have gone anywhere from No. 2 to No. 5.

The answer to those questions changed a time or two on this scoreboard-watching Sunday that made the NFL executives look like geniuses when they decided to move all the game with playoff implications to the same time slot.

Here's a timeline of how things changed around the league as the day went on, including the dramatics on the Buccaneers' final drive.

3:08 p.m. — The Minnesota Vikings beat the Chicago Bears 23-10, clinching the No. 2 spot in the NFC. Before the day began, the Panthers had a shot to get the No. 2 spot, but those hopes were dashed before they ever kicked off in Atlanta.

3:25 p.m. — Four NFC games with playoff implications (Saints at Bucs, Panthers at Falcons, 49ers at Rams and Cardinals at Seahawks) all kick off.

3:31 p.m. — The 49ers, out of the playoff picture, take a 3-0 lead over the Rams. It was the start of a rout that we should've seen coming earlier in the week. The Rams decided to rest starters like running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff, saying they were more concerned about getting healthy for the playoffs than the 3 or 4 seed. A Saints win coupled with a Rams loss would give the Saints the 3 seed.

3:38 p.m. — Saints rookie sensation Alvin Kamara does it again. Kamara catches a kickoff in the end zone, pauses as if he wasn't going to bring it out, then bursts for a 106 yard kickoff return to answer the Bucs' score.

3:45 p.m. — In Atlanta, the Falcons kick a field goal and take a 10-0 over the Panthers.

3:51 p.m. — Kamara scores again, this time on a 7-yard run to give the Saints a 14-7 lead. It would be the last TD of the regular season for the Saints.

4:46 p.m. — The 49ers add to their lead on a Carlos Hyde touchdown and lead Rams 20-3. The No. 3 seed is there for the Saints to take it.

5:39 p.m. — Tommylee Lewis fumbles on a punt return, and Isaiah Johnson scoops it up for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead with 14:04 left. Saints fall back to being a 4 seed.

5:55 p.m. — Zach Line scores his second career touchdown, hauling in a pass from Drew Brees to cap off a 92-yard drive to give the Saints a 24-20 lead with 7:07 left. Saints move back into No. 3 position.

6:21 p.m. — Bucs, down 24-23, get the ball on own 5 with 1:58 left. If the Saints hold, they are at home against the Falcons for the second time in two weeks.

6:23 p.m. — Falcons add yet another field goal and lead by 22-10 late, all but assuring themselves a playoff berth while eliminating the Seahawks, who are trying to rally against the Cardinals.

6:29 p.m. — With one Jameis Winston flick of the wrist, Saints fall to the No. 4 seed when Chris Godwin catches a 39-yard pass with 9 seconds left.

Sean Payton wasn't paying attention to what was going on elsewhere in Atlanta and L.A. 

"You're focused on your own game," Payton said. "You see the score, but you have no idea where it's at (in the game). At halftime maybe, but our focus was really on winning this game. Honestly."

The Saints didn't. But in a way they did. 

Some of their players wore the NFC South Division championship T-shirts to prove it.  

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.