Saints face rough road to repeat

NEW ORLEANS –- If you go only by conventional wisdom, the New Orleans Saints aren’t in great shape as they head into the playoffs.

After Sunday’s 23-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints seem to have lost momentum. They seem burdened by injuries. But these Saints sometimes defy the laws of conventional wisdom. That’s how they won a Super Bowl championship last season. Despite Sunday’s stumble, the Saints, 11-5, believe they have a chance to repeat.

“Our expectations are exactly the same as when we came into the season,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “There’s no reason we can’t do it again.’’

That makes some sense when you think back to a year ago. After winning their first 13 games, the Saints lost the final three games of the regular season. There were concerns that they wouldn’t last long in the playoffs. Instead, they went through the postseason with relative ease.

But there is one big difference. This year, the Saints are in as a wild-card team. They’re the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs and they’ll have to go on the road to face the NFC West champion next week. More than likely, they won’t see the friendly surroundings of the Superdome until the start of next season.

“We’ve traveled a road like this before and we know what’s ahead of us,’’ said Brees, who also led the Saints to an NFC Championship Game before losing on the road at the end of the 2006 season.

The Saints have a Lombardi Trophy to show they know how to win championships. But they’re going to have to do it in difficult fashion this time. Even if the Saints can get by the NFC West champion, they might have to go on the road to play the NFC South champion and top-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.

But that’s where the calm that was evident in the New Orleans locker room after the loss to the Bucs (10-6) could come in handy. The Saints already went into the Georgia Dome last week and defeated the Falcons. Yeah, they lost to the Buccaneers and they lost at home, but the Saints were shrugging this one off almost immediately.

“Before the Atlanta game, I looked around the locker room and I could see the playoff intensity in everybody’s eyes,’’ linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There is a quiet calmness to this team that is scary. Give us the ball. Give us 100 yards. We’ll play anybody anywhere.’’

That might be the exact sort of confident attitude that a team needs heading into the playoffs, and the fact that the Saints have postseason experience sure doesn’t hurt. But are the Saints physically ready for the challenges that are going to come with the playoffs?

They played Tampa Bay with tight end Jeremy Shockey (groin), running back Pierre Thomas (ankle) and receiver Marques Colston (knee) on the sidelines. Once they got into the game with the Buccaneers, the injuries kept coming. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee), running back Chris Ivory (foot) and tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) all left the game and didn’t return.

Coach Sean Payton said he didn’t know the severity of any of the new injuries immediately after the game. He also said if any of the players with previous injuries had been ready to go Sunday, they would have played.

The Saints went into the day with an outside shot to overtake Atlanta for the division crown and the No. 1 seed. But that would have required Atlanta losing to a dismal Carolina team and the Saints winning. The Saints and Buccaneers were playing a pretty even game as the Falcons were running away with an easy win against the Panthers. The Saints kept an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard.

Payton kept his starters playing into the fourth quarter. He raised the white flag when he put Chase Daniel in for Brees with nine minutes and 15 seconds remaining and the Buccaneers leading 20-13.

“There was a point where -- and we had discussed this as a staff -- if in the second half, that other game was out of whack, then we were going to back off and not get anybody injured,’’ Payton said. “Our focus completely all week was to get our 12th win, just like we would in any game.’’

But once Payton pulled his starters, you could tell a switch had been flipped. Still trailing by only a touchdown, Payton punted on a fourth down at Tampa Bay’s 39-yard line. That’s something it’s hard, maybe impossible, to imagine Payton doing in a game that really mattered.

Maybe yanking the starters minimized further chances of injury damage. But even when the Saints were playing all out, they weren’t playing particularly well. Brees threw an interception and was sacked three times. The Saints lost two fumbles.

Other than the fact that Reggie Bush, who has been working his way back slowly from a broken leg, ran for 70 yards on nine carries, there weren’t many bright spots on offense. The defense allowed Josh Freeman to complete 21 of 26 passes for 255 yards with two touchdowns and a 133.2 passer rating.

“I thought we did a lot of things that prevent you from winning games, some things we’ll have to clean up if we’re to have any type of success here in this second season,’’ Payton said.

There might be a lot to clean up in a very short time. But think back to last season when the final three regular-season games left the Saints seeming like a mess. They cleaned things up then, so it’s hard to write them off just because they’re on a one-game losing streak, they have some injuries and they have to go on the road.

“I can’t say it’s easier than having the bye and having teams come into our building,’’ Shanle said. “But the thing I really like about this team is the way we respond to challenges. The level of play elevates when this team is challenged.’’

The playoffs are here and the Saints are being challenged.