The New Orleans Saints aren't looking for solace. They're looking for victories.
After Sunday's emotional, 41-38 loss to Carolina at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – New Orleans' fourth consecutive loss, and fourth this season of seven points or less – players weren't nearly as impressed with having pushed the undefeated Panthers (12-0) to the brink of a loss as they were disturbed by the fact that the Saints (4-8) haven't seen much fruit for their labor.
"Our coach has been preaching just keep fighting," safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "Last year, same time, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and they've been on a 16-game winning streak since then. They've just been preaching. Hopefully, it'll turn the corner eventually. We'll just keep working.
"(But) heading in the right direction doesn't do anything right now. We're still 4-8. We need to be 'in' the right direction, not 'headed.' "
Still, the close losses have displayed how fine the line is for the Saints.
Both losses to Carolina – including a 27-22 decision in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 27 – were decided in the final 69 seconds, the former by a Panthers end zone interception and the latter, by a touchdown pass with 65 seconds left.
The 26-19 loss to Tampa Bay at the Superdome on Sept. 20 ended with the Saints taking a shot at the end zone from the Buccaneers' 27-yard line as time expired.
On Nov. 8, the Titans took a 34-28, overtime victory over the Saints, who had a potential game-winning, 46-yard field-goal attempt by Kai Forbath blocked with 56 seconds left in regulation.
So the narrow losses have been reason for the Saints to feel they have been, and remain, close to breaking through.
"As far as the mood and the gauge with the team, I'd say that our feeling is that we're right on the cusp of going over that hump," defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. "We know we're a good team and we know what our potential is.
"It's kind of our first year together – we've got a lot of young guys, we've got a lot of guys from different teams. It's our first time together, and we know we can be real good. We know we're right on the cusp. If we can clean up some little things, clean up these details and things like that, we know we can be a good team."
Sunday, they were almost good enough to beat the last remaining unbeaten team.
"It's frustrating coming in after a game like that," Coach Sean Payton said Monday. "I thought our guys played with great effort and yet, there are a handful of things that come up during that game that end up hurting us, a culmination of a number of things. Those guys are a good football team, and we've got to find a way to finish a game like that.
"We talked all week about, this is a division game. I think our guys understand – we play Tampa this week and we'll have Atlanta coming up – these teams know each other on both sides of it. We talked about the type of game we felt like it needed to be.
"We respect those guys for what they've been able to accomplish as a team up to this point in the season. And it was just about making sure – here are the areas that we feel like we need to play well in, and here are the things we need to do to get a win. We did a lot of things and yet, there are a few things just from an assignment standpoint that creeped in and hurt us. It's difficult, leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you get in a game like that and you see that you have those opportunities."
Among that bad taste, Payton said, were three critical non-calls where silence fell in favor of the Panthers. He said that, as of Monday morning, the aggravation hadn't subsided.
"Man, it's not flipped yet," Payton said, in response to whether he'd flipped the page. "There's three different times there are 12 guys that literally break the huddle. That's just one part of it.
"One of the things I've tried to do here, we've talked about, we don't come in on Mondays and have angst half the day about the calls. But today was one of those mornings where – someone sent me the TV copy, and you've got to be able to (call those penalties).
"The fourth-and-1 (in the first quarter, when Cam Newton ran 30 yards for a first down) becomes fourth-and-6, that's the first time it happens. Goal-to-go becomes – heck, they put 12 on the line of scrimmage; 12 come out of the huddle, 12 go to the line of scrimmage.
"The third time around, it happens in the final, game-winning drive. They break the huddle and Player 12 continues off to the sideline. There's a lot of challenges that causes when you're trying to play defense and you're trying to play coverage. I said what I said (Sunday) and I meant it – those are easy, easy things to see and it's frustrating. But, again, we don't make excuses. You're just angry because those were critical situations."
With the dissolution of frustration comes the beginning of a new challenge. The Saints will play the Buccaneers (6-6) on Sunday in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The Bucs have won three of their last four and, again, the Saints will seek victory over solace.