The end was jarring, emotional, unexpected.
The New Orleans Saints didn't come close to producing a vintage overall performance Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the end result was a 30-20 loss to Tampa Bay in their NFC divisional playoff game. Thus, the Saints begin the process again of offseason evaluation and looking for the right mix to contend for a Super Bowl run. And New Orleans (13-5) likely will have a restless night or two as it examines why it wasn't able to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
OFFENSE: New Orleans committed four turnovers. That's all that needs to be said about the offense, and it was more than enough to drown any positives that occurred. The Saints had two touchdown passes – one, a 56-yarder by Jameis Winston on a trick play – and rushed for 104 yards against a defense that allowed 80 per game during the regular season. But three Drew Brees interceptions led to two short-field touchdown drives, and a lost fumble by Jared Cook led to another short-field score by Tampa Bay. That's too much to overcome in almost any game, and it's more than enough for an opponent in a playoff game. The Saints had just 294 yards and even though they were 6 for 11 on third down, they didn't transition conversions into time-consuming drives and touchdowns.
DEFENSE: There was enough defense to win. It may not appear to be the case when 30 points are allowed, but short-field touchdown drives of three, 40 and 20 yards after touchdowns make life difficult for any defense. Best-case scenario, New Orleans only would have surrendered a field goal on one or two of those drives and in a utopian game, it would have forced a turnover or two in those situations. But that's asking a lot of a defense – to produce bonus stops – against an offense as good as Tampa Bay's offense. The Bucs had just 316 yards of offense. Their fourth-down efficiency (8 of 17) wasn't what New Orleans would have wanted, and neither was the 127 rushing yards. But that doesn't detract from the fact that the Saints' defense – while not as effective as it was in two regular-season games against Tampa Bay – was plenty good enough to win on Sunday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Again, we saw why the Saints have uncovered a gem in returner Deonte Harris. His career-best 54-yard punt return set up a field goal, and a 67-yarder for a touchdown on his next return was nullified by an illegal block penalty. He has special talents, and his first-half neck injury, which required him to miss the rest of the game, hampered the Saints on special teams and on offense. Wil Lutz made a couple of field goals to go into the offseason with consecutive kicks made, and New Orleans allowed a 13-yard punt return. But Harris' effort made this phase more than decent.