The New Orleans Saints gave themselves a chance, probably even more so than they did in consecutive losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina entering Sunday's game against Minnesota at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.
But the 28-25 loss to the Vikings only reemphasized the things that the Saints (1-3) had been emphasizing before they traveled to London: Self-inflicted wounds are as much, if not more, debilitating than almost anything an opponent can do. Turnovers and penalties weigh heavily, and the team that commits them usually is the one that walks away dejected by the outcome.
For the third consecutive game, that team was the Saints.
OFFENSE: New Orleans produced some win-caliber numbers on offense after another slow start, and despite the fact that it was without four starters (quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara and left guard Andrus Peat). Andy Dalton was poised and effective at quarterback, completing 20 of 28 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions, and Latavius Murray (11 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown) gave the run game some pop, some imposition of will. The line kept Dalton clean for the most part (two sacks allowed) and paved the way for 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. But Dalton's lost fumble was monumental; it led to a Vikings field goal and 13-7 deficit entering halftime. And penalties again hurt the unit, which scored its first first-half touchdown of the season, but had three three-and-outs in the first half.
DEFENSE: A mixed bag for the defense Sunday. Lots of good (the first interception of the season, by safety Tyrann Mathieu, three sacks and enough pressure – eight quarterback hits – to have affected Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins often and physically), but the bad sprouted at an inopportune time. Regardless of opinion on the officiating, the calls were the calls and they were backbreaking on a drive that led to a Minnesota touchdown and 25-22 lead in the fourth quarter. Mathieu said he didn't believe he touched the receiver when he was penalized for illegal use of hands on a third-and-10 play, an incomplete pass that became an automatic first down. And cornerback Marshon Lattimore appeared to received as much, or more, than he gave when he was assessed a 41-yard pass interference penalty on third-and-8 from the Saints' 44-yard line on the same drive. New Orleans couldn't keep the Vikings out of the end zone after that, just the second touchdown the unit allowed on a day that it forced five field goals to keep the score close. The run defense got back to being what it's supposed to be (81 rushing yards allowed, 3.2 yards per carry) and even with some space in the secondary (273 passing yards allowed), the numbers weren't crushing. Twenty-eight points allowed seems huge, but only because the defense continues to be put in an unfavorable position.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking team figured out whatever was the problem last week in Carolina. Wil Lutz made a 60-yarder (with room to spare) to tie the score at 25, and his 61-yard attempt to send it to overtime hit the upright, then the crossbar as it caromed backward into the end zone as time expired. Hard to find any fault in it. But the return and cover game fell down, which is the last thing the Saints needed Sunday. Deonte Harty fumbled a punt return in the third quarter, which Minnesota cashed in for a field goal and 16-7 lead. And after the Saints drove 78 yards in 12 plays to cut the deficit to 16-14, an unnecessary roughness penalty on the kickoff return helped the Vikings start their drive at their 45-yard line, and the Vikings burned New Orleans for a 13-yard completion on a fake punt on the same drive, setting up a field goal and 19-14 Minnesota lead. In a close game, every play is magnified and the Saints made several bad ones on special teams.