St. Louis – A nearly perfect storm of poor performance and hyped opponent cocooned the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, when they failed to get out of their own way and couldn't effectively block St. Louis' path, either.
The result was a 27-16 loss to the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome that Coach Sean Payton termed "disappointing" repeatedly, in all phases and on all levels. And it was a loss that set the stage for a showdown against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., next Sunday, with the winner taking control of the NFC South Division and of its fate as the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.
For the Saints (10-4), the equation is simple.
If they beat Carolina on the road, they'll win the division title and the No. 2 seed. Even if they lose the regular-season finale to Tampa Bay and Carolina wins its season-ender in Atlanta to pull into an identical overall record, the Saints take the crown because they'll own the tiebreak (a head-to-head sweep) over the Panthers.
If the Saints lose to the Panthers, then they'll need help. Specifically, they'll need to beat Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and for Carolina to lose its finale in Atlanta in order to win the NFC South crown and the No. 2 seed.
They'd claim the title and No. 2 seed because they'd still own the tiebreak over Carolina, via a better division record. But none of that was close to being a primary consideration Sunday.
New Orleans lost its second consecutive road game by double digits – it fell 34-7 in Seattle on Dec. 2 – and fell for the second time in three games as the Rams (6-8) took control early and turned New Orleans' errors into an insurmountable lead.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw interceptions on the team's first two offensive possessions. The defense committed three personal foul penalties on consecutive St. Louis touchdown drives. A field goal was blocked. A St. Louis onside kick was recovered by the Rams.
And that was just in the first half, after which the Rams led 24-3.
The Saints appeared discombobulated from the start, a condition for which Payton accepted blame.
"That was pretty ugly," he said. "Obviously, it was a disappointing loss, extremely disappointing.
"We need to have the energy in a game like this. If we don't, then maybe that's a good sign of where we're at. There weren't a lot of things that were encouraging."
The Saints outgained St. Louis 432-302 in total yards and posted a 30-17 advantage in first downs. But those numbers sank under the weight of these:
Brees dropped back to pass 62 times (he was sacked four times, twice by defensive end Robert Quinn, and scrambled twice after being flushed out) and the Saints only had 20 rushing attempts, a ratio that generally spells trouble. St. Louis ran for 144 yards (28 for 133 by rookie Zac Stacy).
New Orleans finished with eight penalties for 77 yards, one of which wiped a touchdown pass off the board and led to the field-goal attempt that was blocked. The Saints committed three total turnovers, didn't force one or record a sack, and saw the Rams convert half of their 14 third-down attempts.
"We did all the things that a poor team does to keep them from winning," Payton said. !(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/New-Orleans-Saints-at-St-Louis-Rams/80d29671-0318-46c9-b3bb-128a65d47fa1 "new orleans saints")
And doing them on the road didn't help ease the growing notion outside the locker room that the Saints need to play in the Superdome in order to have playoff success. New Orleans now is 3-4 on the road this season, 7-0 at home.
"Much has been written about how we play on the road and how we play at home and you know what? That is where it is right now with this season," Payton said. "We come out here with a lot at stake having played an important game last week and we can't line up and kick a field goal, we can't get the run stopped, we turned the ball over.
"We did everything we talked about that you can't do to get a road win. We knew that this team would present some tough challenges with protection and still with that being said, how we played today is unacceptable and that is on me."
The Saints opened the game by forcing the Rams to punt after St. Louis drove from its 17 to its 41. The 52-yard punt pinned the Saints at their own 7-yard line. From there, on first down, Brees was pressured by Quinn and threw a deep pass that was intended for tight end Jimmy Graham, but intercepted by Rams safety T.J. McDonald, who was tackled for a 2-yard loss on the return, at the Saints' 31-yard line.
On the next play, Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens threw a short pass to tight end Cory Harkey on the right side and Harkey rambled through several failed tackle attempts to the end zone, giving the Rams a 7-0 lead just 3:40 into the game.
The Saint offense drove from its 20 to the Rams 10-yard line on its next possession. But on second-and-goal from there, Brees (39 for 56 for 393 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions) threw his second interception of the quarter. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson came up with the pick in the end zone and returned it to the Rams 7-yard line.
"We were in the red zone six times," Brees said. "And you can't come away with 16 points. That's not us. That can't be us."
After the interception St. Louis constructed a nine-play, 93-yard touchdown drive – aided by a pair of personal foul penalties by the Saints, and including conversions on third-and-5 and third-and-9 – to take a 14-0 lead on Clemens' 4-yard pass to tight end Lance Kendricks.
The Rams kept the momentum by successfully executing an onside kick, recovering at the Saints' 47-yard line. Six plays, another Saints personal foul and 34 yards later, Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein made a 31-yard field goal for a 17-0 St. Louis lead with 14:57 left in the first half.
The Saints answered with a 45-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley, and the defense forced a punt on St. Louis' next possession. But the Ram defense posted a three-and-out against the Saints and St. Louis drove 82 yards in just five plays for a touchdown, the final 40 coming on a run by Stacy, to take a 24-3 lead.
New Orleans took over its next possession at its 20 with 4:10 left in the half and drove to the Rams 8-yard line with 15 seconds left. On third-and-2, Brees connected with Lance Moore for a touchdown.
But the score was nullified by a penalty on left tackle Charles Brown (illegal use of hands). Brees threw incomplete on third-and-12 from the 18, and Hartley's 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked by defensive tackle Michael Brockers with two seconds left.
The Rams tacked on a Zuerlein field goal in the third quarter and that was more than enough to withstand two fourth-quarter scores by the Saints, a 1-yard run by Brees and a 5-yard pass from Brees to Marques Colston.
"I'm sure the tape won't be very exciting," Payton said. "It'll be revealing, though."
The Saints are hoping some of the revelations will lead to better road play against Carolina.
"I think it's obvious, there's something about us on the road that has to be addressed and fixed," said right tackle Zach Strief, who ended up moving to left tackle to replace Brown, after Payton said he'd seen "enough."
"The record doesn't lie," Brees said. "We have to play better on the road. And we will."