When all is said and done this season, which is likely to be after four more games, the Saints will look back on Sunday's 27-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and think about the one that got away.
Like a 16-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome in October, the Saints seemingly had a hold on a victory over an NFC South opponent, only to give it away with penalties and sloppy play down the stretch. Not to mention an ill-advised play call by coach Sean Payton.
It wasn't an easy day for Payton, whose team could have moved to within one game of the NFC South lead with a victory over the pacesetting Bucs. Instead, the Saints find themselves three games out with four to play. Barring a collapse by Tampa Bay, New Orleans is playing for a wild-card spot.
Payton and cornerback Mike McKenzie had a heated and prolonged exchange on the Saints sideline after the Bucs had a 60-yard pass play on the final play of the first quarter to set up their first touchdown.
Despite leading 14-13 at halftime and 21-20 after three quarters, the Saints couldn't put the Bucs away even though defensive end Will Smith's sack of Luke McCown gave them a 23-20 lead with 3:44 to play.
But a call by Payton for a double-reverse led to a fumble between Reggie Bush and Devery Henderson. The Bucs recovered the ball, setting up an eight-play drive to the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds remaining.
While Payton took responsibility for the play call and the defeat, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said the players had a part in it -- just like when they had a chance to take a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of a Week 4 game against Carolina. But the Saints had a short field-goal try blocked and then went on to a three-point loss.
"We all sat in the locker room and thought of the things we could have done better," Brees said. "It shouldn't come down to that. You're not going to play a perfect game, but in the end when you have yourself in a position to win it, you have to do it, and we did not do it.
"That's happened a couple of times this season, which is particularly frustrating because we're 5-7. We could very easily be 7-5 at worst, and maybe even better."
--The Saints used all three of their second-half timeouts in the first 12 minutes of the third quarter -- burning one on offense and two on defense -- in their 27-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After using their first timeout of the second half at the 7:05 mark following a disputed false-start penalty by OT Jammal Brown on a successful third-and-1 sneak for a first down by QB Drew Brees, the Saints burned their final two timeouts in a two-minute span on defense.
The first came when the Saints had 12 defenders on the field with 5:21 to play. At the 3:20 mark, they had to use the final timeout because of more confusion on defense. That meant they could not challenge a official's call in the second half.
"We did a poor job of using those," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We had some personnel issues. Too many guys, not enough guys, so we have to clean that stuff up. That's on coaching, that's not on the players."
The Saints also had to call two timeouts on offense in the first half because of confusion and because the play clock was winding down.
--The Saints, who were allowing 95.8 yards a game on the ground this season, gave up a season-high 172 yards in the loss to the Bucs.
Bucs RB Earnest Graham, who started the season as the team's third-string tailback, gained 106 yards on 22 carries. His 25-yard touchdown run on the first possession of the second half gave the Bucs a 20-14 lead.
Graham became the first individual to rush for 100 yards against the Saints since Colts RB Joseph Addai piled up 118 yards in a 41-10 season-opening win over the Saints.
--CB Mike McKenzie intercepted a Luke McCown pass and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
It was McKenzie's second touchdown on an interception return this season, the first time he's done that in his nine-year career.
--When the Bucs completed a season sweep on the Saints, whom they defeated 31-14 on Sept. 16 in Tampa, it marked the third consecutive year that one team has swept the season series.
The Saints swept both games between the NFC South rivals in 2006, and the Bucs claimed both games in 2005. The Saints also swept the Bucs back in 2002, the year Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Since the two teams joined the NFC South in 2002, each has won six times.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--LCB Mike McKenzie was not on the field as the Buccaneers drove to a game-winning touchdown Sunday. Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday that McKenzie was spitting up blood and was held out while doctors checked him out. Payton said subsequent tests on McKenzie were negative.
--RB Reggie Bush, who has had a bruised left shin for the past two weeks, was sidelined for a few plays in the final quarter but returned later.
--DT Brian Young, who missed four games with a left knee injury that required surgery, was back in the starting lineup against the Bucs.
--RCB Jason David replaced Kevin Kaesviharn for the Bucs' second snap and played the majority of the contest at his usual spot.
--DT McKinley Boykin did not play Sunday because of a left knee injury that kept him out of practice all of last week.
--RB Pierre Thomas was inactive Sunday because of a bruised kidney that forced him to sit out two practices late last week.
--RB Jamaal Branch was signed from the practice squad to provide depth in the backfield because Pierre Thomas was inactive with a bruised kidney.
--S Jay Bellamy was released to open a roster spot for RB Jamaal Branch.
REPORT CARD VS. BUCCANEERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C -- While they weren't terrible, the Saints finished with a season-low 162 net passing yards in their loss to the Buccaneers. That was 25 yards fewer than they had in a season-opening loss at Indianapolis. Drew Brees completed 17 of 23 passes for 179 yards and two TDs -- including a perfectly thrown 45-yard scoring strike to Devery Henderson -- in posting a passer rating of 125.1. Brees was sacked a season-high three times, however, and completed just six passes to his wide receivers. Marques Colston had just two receptions for 39 yards.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- The Saints managed to run the ball effectively at times Sunday; the problem was they just didn't get enough opportunities. They had just 47 offensive plays, of which 21 were runs. Reggie Bush, who is still not 100 percent after being slowed by a bruised left shin, picked up 64 of the team's 84 rushing yards and had a long gain of 14. Aaron Stecker added 16 yards on seven tries as the Saints averaged 4.0 yards a carry.
PASS DEFENSE: D-minus -- The only thing that saved the grade from being an "F" was CB Mike McKenzie's interception and 53-yard return for a touchdown. Other than that, it was bad, as Luke McCown, who was making just his fifth NFL start, picked the Saints apart. He was 29 of 37 for 313 yards with two TDs. He was sacked three times but finished with a passer rating of 108.7 as he connected with WR Joey Galloway seven times for 159 yards -- including a 60-yarder to set up a score -- and teamed up with TEs Anthony Becht and Jerramy Stevens for short scoring passes.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The Saints had been doing a good job against the run, but the Bucs ripped them for 172 yards and a 6.6-yard average on 26 carries. Former third-string RB Earnest Graham became the first individual to rush for 100 yards in 11 games against the Saints when he finished with 106 yards on 22 carries. He had a 25-yard TD run in the third quarter. McCown added 34 yards on two carries, including a 26-yard scramble.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- There wasn't much to talk about as the Saints returned no punts and averaged just 14.7 yards on seven kickoff returns. On the other hand, the Bucs returned four punts for a 2.3-yard average and returned four kickoffs for a 22.3 average. The bright spot was the kicking of punter Steve Weatherford, who averaged 42.8 gross yards and 41.3 net yards on six kicks. He also had one punt inside the 20 and had a long of 54 yards.
COACHING: F -- The Saints were out of sync and discombobulated most of the day. They burned all three of their second-half timeouts -- one on offense and two on defense -- in the third quarter, and Sean Payton and McKenzie engaged in an animated conversation after the Bucs completed a 60-yard pass on the final play of the first quarter to set up their first touchdown. A bad day got worse for Payton when he called an ill-advised double-reverse with just over 3 1/2 minutes to play with New Orleans holding a three-point lead. The Saints fumbled the ball away, and the Bucs needed just eight plays to score the game-winning touchdown.