Saints stil have work to do

Published 4:51 am Thursday, December 31, 2009


AP Sports Writer

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Displeased with how the Saints have played lately, coach Sean Payton wants to turn things around before the playoffs.

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“It’s important for us to play well this week,” Payton said, referring to the Saints’ regular-season finale at Carolina, which is now devoid of playoff implications. “We have to find the corrections and … view it as an opportunity for us to get things corrected before it becomes a more important game.”

The Saints became locked in as the top seed in the NFC playoffs when Minnesota lost at Chicago on Monday night.

In 42 previous seasons, the Saints have made the playoffs only six times and have never been the No. 1 seed. Such an achievement might have been easier for the Saints to enjoy if they weren’t in the midst of a two-game losing streak.

“It’s important for us to not go on a three-game losing streak,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “We’re going to have to sit down and think about what we need to do to get better and start winning again.”

After opening the season with 13 victories, the Saints (13-2) took their first loss against playoff-bound Dallas in stride. They understood that it was an important game for the Cowboys, and credited Dallas for holding on to win 24-17.

Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay was much tougher to take. The Saints had hoped to clinch the NFC’s top seed on the field — instead of watching the Bears help them do it — and envisioned their last regular-season home game ending in a celebration with their fans.

Initially, it seemed as if that would happen as they jumped ahead 17-0.

In the end, though, the Saints walked off the Louisiana Superdome turf embarrassed by a 20-17 overtime loss, which marked the first time a 13-win team had lost to a team that came in with only two victories.

“After a loss like that, you have a lot of concerns,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “My biggest concern is we didn’t finish the game like we have all season. That, to me, sticks out. … We started the game fast, which has been a problem the last couple of weeks. But the energy just didn’t sustain and I’m a little concerned about that. I don’t know why that happened.

“All of us didn’t play as well as we should have in the second half. That’s all I can say,” Fujita added. “We’ll take a good hard look at ourselves and move on from there. Obviously we’re extremely disappointed. We lost a game (Sunday) we didn’t have any business in losing.”

When Payton returned to the Saints’ suburban training headquarters on Monday, he spent a couple hours going over video of the loss to the Buccaneers, trying to identify why the Saints’ offense came up a yard short three times on drive-stalling third-down plays, or why New Orleans’ defense had trouble stopping Tampa Bay running backs, who combined for 176 yards rushing. Stopping Carolina may be even tougher. The Panthers have won impressively against Minnesota 26-7 and the New York Giants 41-9 in the past two weeks.

The Saints, who made double-digit victories commonplace earlier this season, haven’t beaten anyone that badly in a while now. Before losing two in a row, New Orleans narrowly pulled out three-point wins against non-playoff teams in Washington and Atlanta.

Still, Payton remained confident in his club’s ability to turn things around before it’s too late.

“We have a smart team and they understand the challenges and they understand that we’re going to have to play better to have success when the second season begins,” Payton said. “Ultimately, they also realize that this team will be measured on how we play in the postseason. I think what’s most important is for all of us to closely look at some things that we have to get back to doing that we’ve done earlier in the year or in any of our wins.”