One of the first things I learned from my father about sports was the Saints’ penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The phrase, or something like it, should be on a T-shirt they could sell in Champions Square after games like the one Sunday. Blowing the unblowable game seems, despite the Super Bowl championship and the playoff appearances and divisional titles, still imbedded in the franchise’s DNA.
It was a classic come-from-ahead Saints loss, all right, this 34-28 overtime defeat. The fact it came against the lowly 1-6 Tennessee Titans — excuse me, the 2-6 Titans — the team that just fired its coach and whose rookie quarterback was limping back into action from a knee injury, only served to deepen the agony.
“Forget the records,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s frustrating that we lost this game because of … penalties, turnovers, and just not making the plays that we need to make.
“I know we can run the ball better,” Payton added after his team managed just 2.3 yards per rush.
“I know we can stop the run better,” he said after New Orleans allowed 112 yards on the ground (4.0 yards per play).
“All of those things that mean winning in football we didn’t do enough of today.”
On a weekend when much of Louisiana was in search of a hangover remedy for LSU’s humbling 30-16 loss Saturday night at Alabama, the Saints were expected to soothe everyone’s throbbing temples with a cathartic win over Tennessee. New Orleans was riding some amazing momentum coming off three straight victories, poised to launch the manageable second half of its schedule with a win over an opponent in disarray. Playoff push, here they come was the plan.
Instead, for the Saints, the disarray again dwells within.
I have to admit I was taken in by the Saints’ historic 52-49 win over the Giants last Sunday. All the offense was such an incredible sensory overload, it was easy to be convinced that the fact the Saints gave up 49 points on the strength of six Eli Manning touchdown passes was mostly an anomaly. Certainly the Saints would be able to defend their house against the Titans, even with 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota making his return. This was a Tennessee team that had scored just three touchdowns in its previous four games, no more than 13 points each time.
Pretty quickly, though, it became obvious the Saints had met the enemy on this Sunday, and it was its own defense.
The moment of clarity came late in the first quarter, when Mariota launched a chuck-and-duck deep ball that had no chance of turning into anything positive for his team.
But then the pass pinballed off the hands of Saints defenders Jarius Byrd and Keenan Lewis and into the disbelieving hands of Titans tight end Delanie Walker, who admitted he lost the ball in the lights. But suddenly it was right in front of him, so he grabbed his gift and sped 61 unimpeded yards for a touchdown to pull Tennessee within 14-10.
“Sometimes,” Mariota admitted, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”
To that point, the Saints had stuffed the Titans, forcing three straight three-and-outs to start the game and limiting them to a field goal after a fumbled Marcus Murphy punt return in the Saints’ end. But after that lucky bounce, the Titans took on new energy and confidence while the Saints defense retreated like it had somewhere cool in the French Quarter it would rather be.
Mariota completed 28 of 39 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, the last in overtime as he rolled right and threw an against-the-grain touchdown pass back to wide-open tight end Anthony Fasano in the end zone.
It was the only time the Titans had the lead.
“We had a lot of distractions up in Tennessee,” Walker said. “We came down here as a team and took those distractions and frustrations out on the Saints.”
So maybe that’s what it was. Clearly the Titans found something inside themselves to channel into a winning effort. And it must be said the Saints’ injury-riddled linebacker corps was without three of its stalwarts — starters Hau’oli Kikaha and Dannell Ellerbe and key reserve Ramon Humber — a major factor in the pass rush failing to register a sack of Mariota while recording just two quarterback hits.
But still, these were the Titans. And this is the Saints defense this year — the defense that also made Tampa Bay rookie Jameis Winston (like Mariota a Heisman winner, it must be said) look like a grizzled vet.
The Saints are becoming pretty veteran at trying to climb back to .500. They were poised to leap over that barrier Sunday but came tumbling back down to 4-5. Once again, New Orleans faces what looks very much like a must-win game next week at Washington if it wants to keep alive its hopes of a wild-card berth. The 8-0, NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers are well beyond their grasp.
So is any real hope of a playoff berth if the Saints can’t play better defense than this.
So where does this loss leave the Saints? Not awful, certainly not good, somewhere in between. In a place where defeat, however improbable, is waiting to pounce on whatever good vibes the Saints can conjure up.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.