Week 15 Saints Inside Slant

With a chance to make a big late-season move in both the NFC wild-card race and in their division on Sunday, the Saints gave it all away in a 14-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In doing so, they all but kissed away their playoff aspirations for another year -- just as they have done for each of the past two Decembers.

Three turnovers and a blocked punt led to two touchdowns, which was all the Bucs needed to stop the Saints from moving to within one game of both wild-card leaders -- the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks. Hours later, they would take an even bigger hit when the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers lost in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons. A victory, coupled with the Panthers' loss, would have left Jim Haslett's team just one game out of the division lead with three to play. "It's disappointing to know that we had a chance today," strong safety Jay Bellamy said. "A lot of teams aren't playing for anything in December. It's disappointing to know that we were playing for a lot, and we weren't able to get it done." After giving the Bucs a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half, which stood up when Aaron Brooks fumbled twice in Tampa Bay territory in the second half, the Saints couldn't come back. "It's frustrating to know that you lost a game you should have won," said running back Deuce McAllister said. "It's very frustrating when you had an opportunity to maybe get a win to help yourself in the playoff run. "You can't turn the ball over," he said. "Until we learn that, we're going to be an average or subpar team."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--RG LeCharles Bentley, who has been playing with a hyperxtended left knee for several weeks, aggravated the injury against the Bucs and had an MRI on Monday. But the results weren't available late Monday afternoon and Bentley is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with the Giants.
--DT Willie Whitehead, who re-injured his right knee a week ago and did not play against the Bucs, is listed as questionable to doubtful by coach Jim Haslett for this week.
--LG Kendyl Jacox, who has missed four straight games with a right knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery on Nov. 17, may be able to practice later this week.
--WR Donte Stallworth is listed as doubtful with a sprained left ankle that has sidelined him for three games.
--RB Fred McAfee, who sprained his left ankle on Nov. 30 against the Redskins, did not play Sunday and is likely to miss the Giants game.
--RB James Fenderson missed Sunday's game against the Bucs with a sprained left ankle and will be listed as doubtful this week.
--MLB Cie Grant was out Sunday because of a strained right calf muscle and is doubtful for the Giants game.
--TE Zach Hilton was inactive Sunday because of a sprained left knee, but may be able to return to practice later this week.
--LCB Dale Carter, who was placed on injured reserve this weekend, has a tendon problem in his knee. He was shut down for the rest of the season to allow the injury to heal without surgery.
--LCB Ashley Ambrose started Sunday's game in place of Dale Carter.
--DT Kenderick Allen, an undrafted free agent, made his first NFL start on Sunday in place of the injured Willie Whitehead.
--LG Montrae Holland, the Saints' fourth-round draft pick this season, made his fourth straight start on Sunday in place of the injured Kendyl Jacox.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "In a minute and forty seconds, we had a dropped touchdown, two fumbles, a blocked punt, a penalty and missed tackles for a touchdown. Twenty-eight minutes before that, we played pretty good football." -- Saints coach Jim Haslett on his team's sudden collapse in the final two minutes of the first half against the Bucs.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD VS. BUCCANEERS
PASSING OFFENSE:
D -- Aaron Brooks hit on 20 of 30 passes for 238 yards with one touchdown and had a passer rating of 101.8. But the Saints had little to show for it after he was sacked seven times and fumbled three times in the loss to the Bucs. Brooks lost fumbles at the Bucs' 6 and 38 in the second half, which ruined two good opportunities to tie the game. Joe Horn caught nine passes for 118 yards, but he had a crucial drop on what would have been a 28-yard TD reception in the second period. Brooks had oly one other completion to a wide receiver in the game, an 8-yarder to Jerome Pathon.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- After nine straight 100-yard performances by Deuce McAllister, the Saints were rather ordinary against the Bucs' defense. McAllister had only 69 yards on 22 carries and a 3.1 average, and the Bucs kept him and the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing offense contained most of the afternoon. Of McAllister's 22 carries, 17 of them went for three yards or less and his longest runs were for 22 and 11 yards.
PASS DEFENSE: C -- The Saints weren't bad, but they weren't great either as Brad Johnson completed 20 of 34 passes for 213 yards and two TDs. He threw one interception and was sacked only once as the Saints weren't able to get much pressure on him. As a result, starting wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Charles Lee combined for 11 catches for 137 yards. And the Saints' defense went to sleep as Warren Sapp, lined up as a tight end, was all alone for a 1-yard scoring reception just before halftime.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- Despite a knee injury to tackle Willie Whitehead (one of their best run defenders) and starting two rookies inside in Johnathan Sullivan and Kenderick Allen, the Saints did a decent job against the Bucs. Thomas Jones had 89 yards on 20 carries, but his long run was 13 yards and the Saints allowed 3.7 yards per attempt.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus -- The Saints did a solid job with their coverage teams and Michael Lewis came back from a sprained ankle to average 28.7 yards on kickoff returns and 14.3 yards on punt returns. Also, Mitch Berger averaged 47.5 yards on four punts with a net of 41.3. But Berger had a punt blocked that set up a 1-yard touchdown and John Carney missed a 49-yard field goal in the second half.
COACHING: C -- For whatever reason, the Saints can't get above the .500 mark and make a run at the playoffs. For the second time in three weeks they had a chance to get their heads above water -- which would've helped them make a move in the ever-tightening wild-card chase and also get closer to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South standings -- but failed.


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