The cumulative effect of a season of near misses was detectable Sunday in the New Orleans Saints' locker room at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Players have been cautiously optimistic (the season opener in Atlanta), angry (Game 2, in Cleveland), and convinced that the season was heading in the right direction (after dropping to 2-4, in Detroit) after losses of three, two and one point, respectively.
But Sunday's 27-24, overtime loss to San Francisco, which snapped an 11-game home winning streak that dated to last season, had Saints players a bit more agitated after experiencing their fourth loss by three or fewer points this season, by a combined nine points.
"Each and every one of these games is hard to win," tight end Jimmy Graham said. "We've had so many close games and we just can't figure out how to win.
"I thought we had kind of gotten over the hump but we're right back here, so we're going to have to do whatever it takes to win these close ones. That's the difference between us being a great team, and us just being a mediocre team."
At worst, New Orleans (4-5) will be tied with Carolina (3-5-1) in the loss column if the Panthers win in Philadelphia on Monday night. And still, the Saints control their destiny.
But coming up excruciatingly short stung against San Francisco, after taking the lead with 1:52 left in regulation and having pitched a shutout defensively in the second half until then. The Saints trailed 14-0 in the first quarter and 21-10 at halftime, scored touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters to take a 24-21 lead, then failed to close out the 49ers in front of 73,129 fans.
"We're not making plays," right tackle Zach Strief said. "What's hard is, it's a half-second, it's a half-yard. It's horribly close. We have to make plays at the end of games. Other teams have and we have not.
"It's not a simple thing. It's a game of inches and we've lost a whole lot of inches this year. We've to find a way to make plays at the end of games. It's very simple. We've just got to find a way to make the plays to win at the end."
Defensively, there was one major slip in the second half.
On San Francisco's final offensive possession of regulation, on fourth-and-10 from its 22-yard line, quarterback Colin Kaepernick avoided the pass rush that flushed him toward the right sideline, and powered a 51-yard completion to receiver Michael Crabtree down the left hash, giving the Niners first down at the Saints' 27.
Three incompletions later, San Francisco's Phil Dawson kicked the game-tying 45-yard field goal.
"It's fourth-and-10 … you can't ask for anything better than that," outside linebacker Junior Galette said. "You're in Cover-2. We've got to get (Kaepernick) down. We've just got to get him down. We can't let the ball get over the top of our heads on fourth-and-10, and we've got to get him down, as well."
Later on offense there was a third – and final – damaging turnover.
On the Saints' second offensive possession of overtime, Drew Brees was sacked from behind by linebacker Ahmad Brooks at his 10-yard line, fumbled, and Niners linebacker Chris Borland recovered the ball at the 17. On the next play, Dawson kicked the 35-yard game-winner.
"We had vertical routes called and (the 49ers) were soft," said Brees, who completed 28 of 47 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions. "I was trying to get it to the back (Travaris Cadet) but he was tripped up, so he was on the ground and I couldn't get it to him. He was on the ground, so I brought (the ball) back.
"Then I tried to throw again as he started to get up. There was nobody around him, he could have run forever. I got hit as the ball was coming out."
Together, those errors helped San Francisco end the Saints' two-game winning streak, and their 20-game home winning streak with Sean Payton as coach.
But in between the Dawson's kicks, the Saints had an opportunity on the final possession of regulation.
With 44 seconds left, New Orleans began the possession at its 20-yard line. Brees scrambled for five yards on first down, completed a 15-yard pass to Graham on second down, then completed a 13-yarder to Cadet before spiking the ball to stop the clock with five seconds left.
On second-and-10 from the San Francisco 47, his deep pass down the right side was caught in the end zone by Graham for what would have been Graham's third touchdown catch of the day, and a euphoric game-winner as time expired.
But Graham was penalized for offensive pass interference, and regulation ended on the penalty.
"I saw it, it looked clean," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "We'll see it on film."
Graham (10 catches for 76 yards, with two touchdowns) said he didn't need a review.
"It was definitely not a push off," he said. "I'm running down the field and I'm telling myself not to push off. 'Whatever you do, don't push off, just go up and get it.'
"It's interesting how guys grab me everywhere on the field and I put, literally, two fingers on somebody you make that kind of call. That's why I switched, that's why I left basketball – so I could stop being penalized for hitting people."
The Saints absorbed a couple of blows early, and rebounded.
Brees was intercepted on third-and-8 from the Saints' 25-yard line on the team's first possession, and Antoine Bethea's 22-yard return set up San Francisco's three-play, 19-yard touchdown drive.
New Orleans went three-and-out on its next possession, and the Niners marched 79 yards in 13 plays to take a 14-0 lead with 4:17 left in the first quarter.
The Saints responded with Shayne Graham's 40-yard field goal on their next possession, produced a defensive stop, and pulled to within 14-10 on Brees' 31-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks that capped a five-play, 60-yard drive.
San Francisco rebutted on its next drive – an eight-play, 80-yard march that ended on Kaepernick's 15-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin.
The teams alternated punts for three possessions before the Saints had a breakthrough – defensive end Tyrunn Walker sacked Kaepernick at the Niners' 40-yard line and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Cam Jordan at the 42.
But four plays later, on second-and-2 from the San Francisco 22, Brees was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Chris Culliver to end the drive and protect San Francisco's 21-10 lead.
"Something's got to get fixed," Brees said. "I'm not happy about it. I can't turn the ball over at the rate I'm turning it over and I can't turn it over in the situations that I'm turning it over. I'm aware of that.
"I've been playing this game a long time; I know how to play it at a high level. Certainly, when you turn the ball over it can compromise a lot of the good things. I think we did do a lot of good things out there, but unfortunately – and for me personally, too – there were too many bad things that you couldn't overcome with the good things."
And there was much good in the second half. The defense forced punts on four consecutive San Francisco drives, and Brees threw touchdown passes of 11 and 2 yards to Graham, the first after he somehow spun out of the grasp of a defender.
But the fourth-down conversion that was allowed defensively, and the protection breach and sack-fumble on offense, gave the Saints their fourth close loss this season.
"We can't lose the turnover ratio 3-1 to that team," Strief said. "We've got to take better care of it. And we've got to make plays at the end. There's a lot of 'real closes' in that game, and real close doesn't cut it."