NEW ORLEANS | As Drew Brees and his Saints teammates walked off the field following their first defeat of a thrilling season, the Louisiana Superdome crowd offered the kind of appreciative applause a pitcher receives after losing a no-hitter in the late innings.
At 13-1, the Saints remain in control of the race for the top overall playoff seed in the NFC. What remains to be seen is whether they’ll be playing like the best team in the conference when the postseason begins.
“Certainly we did not play our best game tonight - far from it,” Brees said after the Saints’ 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night. “Moving forward, we understand what’s on the horizon. We know there’s a lot of things we need to improve upon right now, but we’re just excited to get back on the field and make up for what happened today.”
The squad that appeared invincible in a Monday night 38-17 dismantling of the New England Patriots last month has looked vulnerable in each of its past three games.
First came a stunning comeback in a 33-30 overtime win at Washington - made possible when the Redskins’ Shaun Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal attempt that could have iced the game near the end of regulation. In Atlanta, New Orleans needed a pair of late defensive stops to escape with a 26-23 victory.
The Saints fell behind early for a third straight time Saturday night against Dallas, a playoff contender that was good enough to stop the Saints from coming back.
The Saints trailed 24-3 before Mike Bell’s short touchdown run with 12:35 to go. Although New Orleans pulled within one score on Brees’ 7-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore with eight minutes left, Dallas could have - should have - put the game away with a nearly six-minute drive deep into New Orleans territory that set up a 24-yard field goal try with 2:19 left. Like Suisham, Nick Folk shanked it, granting Brees his latest chance to march the Saints down the field for a late tying score.
Dallas’ defense, which had harassed Brees all night, wasn’t going to allow it. Brees was sacked for the fourth time in the game and stripped for the second time by DeMarcus Ware. His third turnover - Brees also was intercepted in the first half - finally ended New Orleans’ unbeaten run.
“We had three of four snaps where we just turned a guy loose,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s been kind of uncharacteristic. … We have to do a better job coaching and prevent that from happening.”
Some troubling trends have emerged for the Saints the past three weeks. With 312 yards passing, Dallas’ Tony Romo became the third straight quarterback to eclipse the 300-yard mark against New Orleans. For Romo, it was nothing out of the ordinary, but two weeks ago Jason Campbell’s 367 yards were a career high. In Atlanta, backup Chris Redman’s 303 yards were the second-highest mark of his career.
The Saints’ defense has been hobbled lately. Although Tracy Porter returned for the first time in a month against Dallas, fellow starting cornerback Jabari Greer (sports hernia) remained out, and starting defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis also was sidelined with a sore left knee.
“You’re going to lose players. We have all year. That’s part of the game,” Payton said. “I think the injuries - we’ve got to be able to overcome that.”
Meanwhile, the Saints’ offense has been starting slowly unlike early in the season, when New Orleans scored on the first possession of its first five games and never trailed in any of those contests.
Against Dallas, New Orleans opened with a pair of three-and-outs. The Cowboys opened with two touchdowns for a quick 14-0 lead. With that, New Orleans had yielded 99 first-quarter points and has been outscored 99-71 in the opening quarter.
And while the Saints averaged 37 points through their first 11 games, their scoring pace has steadily slowed with totals of 33, 26 and 17 in their last three games.
“It’s not happening the way it should,” Brees said. “Obviously, we need to get back to starting fast, getting that tempo going.”