The New Orleans Saints don't have to be perfect in order to win a game. Even in victory this season, they haven't been errorless.
But following their third consecutive loss at home – a 34-27 defeat administered by Baltimore on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which dropped New Orleans' record to 4-7 – players and coaches primarily noted the miniscule margin of error with which the team has operated this season, and too often has been unable to conquer.
A turnover here. A missed assignment there. A dropped pass or interception sprinkled in, along with a momentum-breaking or drive-extending penalty. A mistimed leap, an improper angle taken, an ill-advised attempt or a one-on-one battle lost.
Individually, perhaps, each could be overcome and rendered harmless. Collectively, the aforementioned comprises the backbone of a 4-7 season in which the Saints still have the same mark as Atlanta atop the NFC South standings, but is nowhere near recognizable as an expectation New Orleans courted entering this season.
"Obviously, our margin for error is not good enough to win close games," Coach Sean Payton said Monday after the game. "We have to be able to play better and coach better. That falls on me, our coaching staff and our players, all of us. And most importantly, we have to make sure we have thick enough skin and be able to have the mental and physical toughness to bounce back and play next week (in Pittsburgh on Sunday), because we are playing, obviously, an important game."
Quarterback Drew Brees echoed the sentiments of his coach.
"I would just say there is just not a large margin for error on both sides of the ball right now," said Brees, who completed 35 of 45 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception that was returned 44 yards for a Ravens touchdown.
"We're just not quite doing enough to get the job done right now," Brees said. "This is a game of inches and split seconds. Unfortunately, a lot of those haven't gone our way this year, especially the last three games.
"We've got to accept what's happened but remain undeterred in regard to our direction for this team, this program. Winning cures a lot of things; it certainly makes you feel better about yourself and what you're doing. It's no fun to lose, it's no fun to be 4-7. You worry about the things you can control – let's get better this week and get a win."
The Saints took the opening drive of the game and, sparked by a 67-yard run by receiver Joe Morgan on an end around and a face-mask penalty added on to the end of the run, set up first-and-goal at the 1 after their first two plays from scrimmage.
But Mark Ingram (11 carries, 27 yards) was tackled for a 1-yard loss on first down, then gained a yard back on second down. After a 5-yard penalty for a false start on left tackle Terron Armstead, Brees scrambled five yards back to the 1 where, on fourth down, Ingram was tackled for a 2-yard loss.
The Ravens (7-4) took over on downs and drove 97 yards for a touchdown – a 15-yard pass from Joe Flacco (18 for 24 for 243 yards and a touchdown) to Steve Smith (four catches for 89 yards and a score) on third-and-9.
"I thought it was an important time in the game for us maybe to send a message and one of the reasons why not only did we go for it, but we ran it," Payton said. "Listen, that's two times now, two weeks in a row we are not able to get it. But then we are not able to defend it from that position on the field.
"It was a gut feeling and I think our approach going in, and our players knew it, was that we were going to be aggressive in this game and we could obviously look back and (say we should have) kicked it, but it's something I decided."
Still, the Saints rebounded. After the teams exchanged punts – Baltimore's 73-yarder pinned New Orleans at its 15-yard line – the Saints needed five plays (including a 62-yard pass from Brees to Morgan) and a penalty to drive to the Ravens' 10. There, Brees connected with Jimmy Graham (six catches, 47 yards, two touchdowns) in the left flat for a touchdown pass to complete a drive that lasted just 2:44.
The Ravens drove to the Saints' 7-yard line on their next possession where, on second-and-goal, Flacco completed a 6-yard pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk. But rookie safety Pierre Warren tackled Juszczyk, wrestled the ball away and came away with the recovery at the 1 with 14:55 left in the first half.
After forcing a New Orleans punt, the Ravens produced a four-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that ended on a 13-yard run by Justin Forsett (22 carries, 182 yards, two scores) and gave Baltimore a 14-7 lead with 9:08 left in the half.
The Saints the sandwiched scores around a Ravens punt – Shayne Graham's 20-yard field goal with 6:33 left to pull them to within 14-10, and a masterful eight-play, 81-yard drive in the two-minute drill that lasted 94 seconds, concluded on Brees' 26-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston (4-82-1) and gave the Saints a 17-14 lead they carried into halftime.
From there, though, the Ravens retook the momentum and never again relinquished it.
They opened the second half with a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended on Justin Tucker's 31-yard field goal to tie the score at 17-17. On the Saints' opening drive of the half, on third-and-7 from the New Orleans 41-yard line, Brees was hit as he attempted to pass to Jimmy Graham and Ravens safety Will Hill intercepted the pass, and returned it 44 yards to give the Ravens a 24-17 lead with 4:59 left.
The Saints punted on their next possession, having been held to 21 yards in the quarter after totaling 355 in the first half. Baltimore went back to work and posted another Tucker field goal – a 55-yarder – to take a 27-17 lead with 10:59 left.
New Orleans countered with another Shayne Graham field goal from 34 yards, but Forsett's 20-yard scoring run capped a six-play, 80-yard Ravens drive to push the score to 34-20 with 2:53 left.
The loss prevented the Saints from taking a one-game lead over the Falcons in the NFC South but, still, didn't yank the team's destiny from its hands.
"Obviously, to be playing for something is important and yet, we have to make sure that some of the things that we did better, we continue to build on and some of the things we did not do well, we get corrected," Payton said.
"That being said, the unique situation we are in is what it is. We can't control that. What we can control is our week's preparation and where we go from here."
Official team photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Baltimore Ravens game on Monday, November 24, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)