Philadelphia – The worst thread of football the New Orleans Saints have played this season was tugged until it helped unravel a promising start against the Philadelphia Eagles, and ultimately became a 39-17 loss Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles scored 29 unanswered, second-half points before New Orleans answered with a touchdown as time expired. Now, the Saints (1-4) have just three days to shave the sides off their square pegs, and make them a better fit for their round holes before they host NFC South Division-leading, undefeated Atlanta (5-0) in a nationally televised game Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"This is a player-led team," said Drew Brees, who completed 26 of 43 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns, but had three of the Saints' four turnovers (two lost fumbles and an interception) and was sacked five times.
"We have great guys," Brees said. "I don't want to hear anything about youth, I don't want to hear anything about talent. I don't want to hear anything about anything other than what we have to do to win the game.
"We have great guys. We have great leaders. So it's frustrating when you sit here at 1-4 and you're not getting production out of that."
The Saints didn't get optimum production from any unit Sunday, and a close game quickly turned lopsided.
On four of Philadelphia's first five possessions, the Saints' defense created, in order: a failed fourth-down attempt by the Eagles; an end-zone interception by Brandon Browner; an end-zone interception by Delvin Breaux; and another failed fourth-down attempt by the Eagles.
But during that time the offense scored a touchdown and punted four times. Unable to find rhythm offensively while the defense was at its best, the Saints were tied 7-7 and then found themselves in a 10-7 hole when Caleb Sturgis kicked a 39-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the half.
And after New Orleans pulled into a 10-10 tie on Zach Hocker's 21-yard field goal to cap a 10-play, 72-yard drive to open the second half, the game turned sideways.
Three second-half turnovers (two fumbles and an interception) contributed to three second-half touchdowns and three second-half field goals by Philadelphia. And the Eagles, who entered the game averaging 19.5 points, 294 yards and 22:48 in time of possession, rolled to 29 points, 519 yards and 34:02 in time of possession.
"I thought the first half, we did some good things defensively," Coach Sean Payton said. "We took the ball away, held them to field goals. We weren't as efficient offensively. The kicking game, we struggled – opening kickoff comes back out to midfield.
"So in the first half, there were a lot of things that when you really look at what you're trying to do, that were positive. But the second half was the opposite. We turned the ball over, really struggled to stay on the field offensively. Defensively, you get that many plays and pretty soon you begin to wear down. We didn't really complement each other today, and so the result is pretty evident."
The Saints took a 7-0 lead on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brees to tight end Benjamin Watson with 3:35 left in the first quarter, a period in which the defense came up with a fourth-down stop and Browner's interception, the first of the season for New Orleans.
And they stayed close in the second quarter, even though Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford's 41-yard touchdown pass to Josh Huff was, in part, aided by Saints safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd colliding and knocking each other off Huff's trail.
Sturgis' field goal to end the half was countered by Hocker's field goal to open the second half. But from there, the Eagles found offensive and defensive gears that previously this season had been missing.
Ryan Mathews capped a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with a 2-yard run to give Philly a 17-10 lead. The Saints' next possession ended when Brees was sacked by Fletcher Cox (he had three), who caused and recovered the fumble. Bradford (32 for 45 for 333 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions) threw a 13-yard touchdown to Brent Celek on the next play to boost the lead to 23-10.
The Saints punted; Sturgis kicked a 29-yard field goal. The Saints punted; Sturgis added a 26-yarder. The Saints fumbled (tight end Michael Hoomanaawanui); Sturgis was good from 41 yards. Brees was intercepted; DeMarco Murray ran for a 4-yard touchdown on the next play to push the lead to 39-10.
"I thought we were playing good in the first half," said Vaccaro, who led the Saints with 11 tackles. "The second half, we didn't execute like we did in the first.
"I haven't seen the tape so I don't know exactly what went wrong. All I know is, we got beat.
"We've got to get off the field. We got the turnovers this week, but we've still got to get off the field. The second half was awful."
Said Breaux, who recorded his first NFL interception: "We gave up too much (in the second half). That's something we've got to work on. Getting those three-and-outs, regardless of the situation, you've still got to play D and get the ball back to the offense.
"We could have kept doing what we were doing (in the first half)."
But very little seemed to work in the second half. New Orleans had a pair of 100-yard receivers – Willie Snead (six catches for 141 yards) and Brandin Cooks (five for 107 yards and a touchdown), and each had the first 100-yard day of his NFL career. Neither was in a celebratory mood, and nor were their teammates.
"This game should have been much closer," Brees said. "We turned the ball over four times. Three of those, we gave them possession in our territory, so we basically gave them 17 points. We only scored 17 points. So it's a bad combination.
"We have to do a much better job offensively of taking care of the football, taking advantage of opportunities for big plays. We had 16 third down (attempts), that's too many. We've got to do better on first and second down, so our third-down situations are manageable. We knew the type of game this was going to be, the type of offense Philly has. We knew offensively we were going to need to do a good job of possessing the ball. We didn't do that.
"It needs to be better (on offense). We're not scoring enough points. Regardless of what happens on the other side of the ball, at the end of the day you say you've got to score one more point than they do, defensively they're saying we've got to hold them to less than our offense scores."