East Rutherford, N.J. – In victory seven days prior, New Orleans Saints players and coaches picked at nits after an 18-point victory and warned that a continuation of them would be costly.
Sunday, at MetLife Stadium against the New York Jets, they found out exactly how costly.
New York pulled off a 26-20 victory over the Saints in front of 76,957, scoring 17 points in the pivotal second quarter and fending off New Orleans down the stretch.
The Saints (6-2) next will face the Dallas Cowboys, in a nationally televised, Sunday night game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But in the bowels of MetLife, there still was the matter of addressing a decision against the Jets that evened the Saints' road record at 2-2 this season.
"Obviously, it was a tough loss," Coach Sean Payton said. "They certainly were the better team today. We've got to do a better job. The game really got one-dimensional, and part of that is on me.
"It stings, but we have to turn around and get ready for another tough game."
The Saints forged to a 14-6 lead against the Jets (5-4) but couldn't hold on as New York turned to its ground game and got the desired result.
New York rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries – including 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries by former Saints running back Chris Ivory – and it was sufficient to balance a miniscule passing game. Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith completed 8 of 19 passes for 115 yards, with 44 coming on one completion.
But the Jets were able to take advantage of several of the errors that the Saints had lamented would become costly.
Two interceptions by Saints quarterback Drew Brees (30 for 51 for 382 yards, and two touchdowns) led to 10 points by the Jets. Nine penalties, for 59 yards, helped put the Saints in unfavorable down-and-distance situations, which contributed to a 3-for-11 showing on third down.
And playing from behind the entire second half somewhat helped the offensive imbalance. Fifty-three of New Orleans' 66 offensive plays were pass plays; Brees was sacked twice, and the running game accounted for 41 yards on 13 carries (though running back Pierre Thomas caught seven passes for 66 yards) The sum was that the Saints, who finished the first quarter of their season 4-0, completed the second quarter 2-2, with an 18-point home victory in their only appearance in the Dome during the quarter, an eight-point road victory in Chicago and a couple of road decisions (30-27 against New England, 26-20 to New York) that just as easily could've been victories if a few chores better had been performed.
"The penalties hurt, certainly," Brees said. "I just felt like they came at some pretty inopportune times. Credit to them, they played very, very well on both sides of the ball.
"(But) overall, there were times where we just shot ourselves in the foot. It might have been our worst third-down output of the season."
Even then, New York didn't breathe easy until the Saints failed to convert on fourth-and-19 from their 10-yard line with 1:21 left. That drive began first-and-10 on the 19, with Brees throwing incomplete on first down, then completing a 16-yard pass to Nick Toon on second down. But the completion was nullified by a holding penalty on center Brian de la Puente.
Three consecutive incompletions ended the drive and the Jets only needed to burn off the final 81 seconds to win, one week after they lost 49-9 at Cincinnati.
"It's hard to play a game like that and get many wins," right tackle Zach Strief said.
The Jets opened the scoring on Nick Folk's 39-yard field goal with 5:41 left in the first quarter, the first of four field goals by Folk, who remained perfect (23 for 23) this season. The drive was set up by Demario Davis' interception of a Brees pass that was tipped by safety Dawan Landry, giving the Jets possession at the Saints' 48-yard line.
The Saints answered that scoring drive with one of their own – a six-play, 81-yard touchdown march that ended on a 51-yard pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham (nine catches, 116 yards and two touchdowns, raising to 10 his total number of touchdowns this season).
Graham piggybacked his defender the final five yards, crossing the goal line with a dive to give New Orleans a 7-3 lead with 2:45 left in the first.
The teams exchanged punts before New York opened the second quarter with an 11-play, 93-yard drive that didn't result in a touchdown, but in a 21-yard field goal by Folk.
But again, New Orleans countered with a touchdown drive.
The quick-strike, five-play, 80-yard sprint was highlighted by a 60-yard pass from Brees to receiver Robert Meachem (four catches, 93 yards) and ended on a 10-yard pass to Graham, who outmuscled cornerback Antonio Cromartie for the score and gave the Saints a 14-6 lead with 7:51 left in the half.
The Jets toughened from there.
After a 42-yard kickoff return by Josh Cribbs, New York drove 61 yards in eight plays, the final three being a run off right tackle by Ivory to cut the Saints' lead to 14-13.
On New Orleans' next possession, Brees completed a 12-yard pass to Thomas on first down from the 20, giving the Saints operating room at the 32, with 2:18 left in the half. But his next pass was tipped by receiver Nick Toon and intercepted by cornerback Antonio Cromartie at the 39.
Smith completed passes of 13 and 21 yards, and Cribbs ran for three on a direct snap, to give the Jets first-and-goal from the 3. From there, Smith scored on a nifty keeper around right end to give New York a 20-14 advantage with 37 seconds left in the first half.
The Jets opened the third quarter with a drive that led to Folks' third field goal, then the teams exchanged punts before Saints kicker Garrett Hartley capped a drive with a career-long, 55-yard field goal to pull New Orleans to within 23-17.
The teams exchanged field goals in the fourth quarter, too – Folk from 45, Hartley from 43 – with the Saints' only other real scoring opportunity coming on a drive that reached New York's 36-yard line. From there, Brees threw incomplete for fullback Jed Collins on third down and rookie tight end Josh Hill was tackled for an eight-yard loss on an end around on fourth down.
"(The play) was something that we saw on tape that we really liked," Payton said.
After Hartley's field goal the defense forced a three-and-out, but the Saints' final drive ended with the penalty and the incompletions.
And the game ended with the knowledge that the concerns previously expressed had manifested in the worst way.
"We definitely paid for some things," right guard Jahri Evans said.
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