The New Orleans Saints are no longer unbeaten, but they can notch another accomplishment if they bounce back with a victory in their next game.
The Saints look to secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed on Sunday when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New Orleans (13-1) saw its quest for a perfect season end with a 24-17 loss to Dallas on Saturday, leaving Indianapolis as the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team.
The Saints’ high-powered offense stalled against the Cowboys, setting season-lows for points and total yards (336). Though he threw for 298 yards with a touchdown, Drew Brees(notes) also had an interception, fumbled twice and was sacked four times. After New Orleans scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, Brees drove the team to midfield in the final minute but was stripped of the ball.
“This is going to sting for a while but we’ve got to be able to put this behind us,” he said. “It’s all about the next game.”
With a win or a Minnesota loss on Monday, the Saints can clinch the top seed in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
While New Orleans finally lost, it’s looked quite vulnerable recently, leading to concerns about playoff readiness. The Saints needed overtime to beat Washington 33-30 on Dec. 6 and won against Atlanta the following week on another late field goal.
They averaged 37 points and 425.9 yards of offense over the first 11 games. Over the last three games, though, New Orleans’ numbers have dipped to 25.3 points and 396.7 yards.
Slow starts have played a big part. New Orleans has been outscored 30-3 in the first quarter of its last three games. Against Dallas, it was held to a field goal until 2:25 into the final quarter.
Brees believes a loss now will make the team better in the long run.
“What we all realize is that all the things that we’ve not been our best at kind of have caught up to us now,” Brees said. “Winning seems to cover a lot of things up.
“When you lose, that’s when you really realize, hey, this stuff will get you beat unless you fix it. So I’m not a believer in psychological victories, necessarily, by taking a loss. But they do uncover things that maybe you would not have recognized or would not have been able to fix unless that had happened to you.”
The Saints’ defense also hopes to rebound after giving up more then 400 yards for the second time in three games and a visit from Tampa Bay could help. New Orleans beat the Buccaneers 38-7 on Nov. 22, holding them to 219 yards while forcing three interceptions and a fumble.
While their next opponent hasn’t played well, the Saints are unlikely to overlook last-place Tampa Bay (2-12), which recorded a surprising win last Sunday by beating Seattle 24-7 to snap an eight-game road losing streak and a five-game overall slide.
Rookie Josh Freeman(notes), who had thrown eight interceptions in the previous two games, passed for two second-half touchdowns, including one to Carnell Williams(notes) that gave the Buccaneers a 13-7 lead.
“Once we executed that screen pass and got into the end zone, it was a big relief to everyone,” said Williams, who also rushed for 66 yards. “I mean, when you’re 1-12, man, (it) wears on you.”
First-year coach Raheem Morris took over defensive play-calling duties after the loss to the Saints, and Tampa Bay has shown improvement on that side of the ball.
Although the Buccaneers have only one win to show for it, opponents are averaging 17.3 points and 324 yards of offense against them over the last four games. They had given up 29.4 points and 378.3 yards over the first 10.
Whether that will be enough to save Morris’ job remains to be seen, but he recognizes what a victory over the Saints would mean.
“I think those guys want to stay in a rhythm for the playoffs. … I think they’re going to want to absolutely take it out on us,” Morris said of New Orleans. “But we look forward to that challenge. You want to define yourself, you want to see how well you’re playing on defense, you go play the Saints.
“They’ll let you know pretty quickly where you are and what you are. There’s no doubt in my mind, they are going to have more yardage on us than we expect. We’ve just got to keep them out of the end zone if we can.”
Tampa Bay has lost two of its last three visits to New Orleans by a combined seven points.
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