METAIRIE, La. — Just like that, New Orleans’ eight-game winning streak is over and its playoff fate is far from certain.
Saints players know it. The question is how they’ll respond to a five-week stretch that features three games against division rivals which are also in the hunt and includes a Thursday night road game.
“It’s just one of those years where you have a lot of teams looking to be that top dog,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said Monday. “We’re still in position where we have control of our own destiny.”
Saints players and coaches spent Monday morning reviewing video of a loss to the Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday that dropped New Orleans (8-3) into a first-place tie with Carolina in the NFC South.
The Panthers, winners of four straight, visit the Superdome this Sunday. The Saints then play at Atlanta (7-4) the following Thursday night.
“We play in one of the toughest — if not the toughest — divisions in football,” Rankins said. “We know that each of these division games count. It’s definitely a big stretch coming for us. We have to regroup after this loss and get back on a winning streak.”
The Saints looked vulnerable even before they headed to Los Angeles, needing an unlikely 15-point, fourth-quarter comeback against Washington to extend their recent winning streak to eight.
On paper, the matchup with the Rams looked unfavorable for New Orleans . The Rams rank second in the NFL in scoring (29.9 points per game), while the Saints were missing both starting cornerbacks — Marshon Lattimore (ankle) and Ken Crawley (abdomen). Also out was starting defensive end Alex Okafor, who’d been lost for the season with an Achilles injury a week earlier.
But coach Sean Payton wasn’t entirely displeased with the performance of the defense, which allowed just two touchdowns and forced four field goals in a 26-20 loss.
The Saints sacked the Rams’ Jared Goff four times, intercepted him once and stopped the Rams’ offense on 11 of 14 third down plays.
Payton’s bigger concern was how poorly his own normally prolific offense functioned. The Saints converted only three of 13 third downs and didn’t score a second touchdown until less than two minutes remained.
“Offensively, we really struggled to maintain any type of a semblance of a rhythm,” Payton said. “It was too inconsistent overall.
“You’re numbers are going to be way down when you’re converting three or four third downs in a game,” Payton added. “You’re not going to have the amount of carries you want. You’re not going to have the amount of plays you want.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was hurried and harried into repeated inaccurate passes, a couple of which were nearly intercepted. Payton said poor execution on earlier downs caused long-yardage situations that can be difficult on quarterbacks against a defense that is playing well.
“It’s hard to play quarterback. It’s hard for anybody on the offense. It’s hard to call the plays when you’re not having some sort of rhythm,” Payton said, adding that Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips deserved some credit for that. “I felt like we were out of sequence.”
The Saints’ final stretch includes home games against Atlanta and the New York Jets, as well as a road game at Tampa Bay.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro said reviewing the loss to the Rams is “definitely going to help us as a team buckle down, hone in on what we need to do.”
“It’s tough. We’re tied with Carolina. Atlanta’s one game back. Minnesota’s playing well. There are a lot of good teams, so every game we play now matters a lot,” Vaccaro said.
“We’ve got to get back to focusing on the game that’s ahead of us and not so much worrying about the playoffs; if we don’t win these games, there’s not going to be any. We need to worry about beating Carolina.”