- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Saints coach Sean Payton is starting a new week by emphasizing, repeatedly, the many good things he noticed during New Orleans’ latest loss.

With his players mystified by their inability to close out close games, it was apparent on Monday that Payton intended to avoid unleashing the kind of criticism that could shatter the increasingly fragile psyche of a team struggling to come to grips with its 2-4 start.

“We’re in a race to improve. And I felt like I saw more, and we saw more, in that game than we had in the prior five, with regards to improvement,” Payton asserted, referring to Sunday’s 24-23 loss to the Lions. “Now obviously, listen, we’re not good enough right now to overcome some of the challenges that took place. … All of a sudden that momentum shifted, and we weren’t able to finish. But when watching the tape, I’m encouraged with a lot of the improvement that I saw.”

On the underside of championship rings the Saints received following their Super Bowl victory to close the 2009 season were inscriptions of a few one- or two-word expressions the team adopted as mottos back then. One of them is: “Finish.”

A half-decade later, the ability to finish no longer is a characteristic of the Saints - at least not now.

If it takes three similar occurrences to establish a trend, then the Saints are trending in a troubling way during the late stages of close games. Three times, New Orleans has had the lead in the final two minutes before losing by three points or less.

Across the locker room at Saints headquarters on Monday, the theme of players’ comments was essentially that - with the exception of one lopsided loss in Dallas - the Saints have been competitive in every game, and just need to figure out why they’re folding in the final minutes.

“The word of the season is, ‘finish,’” safety Kenny Vaccaro said.

Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said the Saints will be stressing the importance of “finishing the play in practice, finishing the run in practice, finishing your workout. Finish. That’s going to be the message this week.”

Added defensive end Cameron Jordan, “We could easily be sitting here at 5-1 as we are 2-4 right now. We realize we have to finish games.”

Payton described the art of finishing well as “that mentality of: You have a chance here to win a game, as opposed to protect the lead.”

As an example, Payton pointed to a moment about half way through the fourth quarter in Detroit, when the Saints had a first down on the Lions 18. New Orleans was then penalized for delay of game, failed to gain more than 5 yards on the next three plays and settled for a field goal to make it 23-10, whereas as a touchdown could have made it a three-score game.

Vaccaro cited leadership, trust and attention to detail as areas the Saints need to address to overcome their late-game lapses.

“In times of crisis like this you’ve got leaders to step up,” Vaccaro said. “Guys start balling out. Guys start playing through the mistakes.”

At the same time, Vaccaro dismissed the notion that the Saints need to reconsider the way they deploy talent or the schemes they use.

“I don’t think we have to go back to the drawing board,” Vaccaro said. “What we did (in Detroit) was effective. I think a lot of it was just not executing one or two plays like we’re taught to execute, but I don’t think it’s a start over type deal.”

Payton said the Saints’ loss to the Lions still represented “by far our best game defensively,” and cited New Orleans’ three sacks and two turnovers to drive home that point. Payton said he also liked the tempo of New Orleans’ offense, which piled up 408 yards against the NFL’s top-rated defense.

Fortunately for the Saints, their playoff hopes are far from finished. The entire NFC South Division has struggled, and New Orleans, which has 10 games left, can climb into a first-place tie by winning its next two contests.

On Sunday night, they host Green Bay, winners of four straight. Then New Orleans plays four nights later at Carolina.

The Saints, however, say they’re more worried about addressing their own shortcomings than monitoring the divisional race.

“The focus is more internal,” Payton said.

Notes: The Saints placed reserve DL Glenn Foster on injured reserve following his injury in Detroit, waived LB Todd Davis and re-signed free-agent tight end Tom Crabtree. .. Saints No. 1 CB Keenan Lewis, who was removed from the late stages of the loss in Detroit with an unspecified injury, declined on Monday to elaborate on what was bothering him, but asserted that he would “be ready” to play Sunday night.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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