CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Another blocked kick -- yes, another blocked kick -- and two more turnovers doomed the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night, the second time in five days they have sabotaged their own season.
The Saints (4-6) made things awfully interesting in the second half. But they couldn’t overcome another avalanche of offensive and special-teams mistakes in a 23-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers, who are also 4-6.
New Orleans’ playoff hopes are now officially on life support after a game that totally lived up to the “sloppy play on Thursday night” narrative.
And those special-teams issues -- which have plagued the Saints all season -- will be under the microscope as they now have an extra-long week to prepare for their Week 12 home date with the Los Angeles Rams.
“We have a long break here to take a look at it all,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who didn’t hide his displeasure with the continued special-teams errors or the turnovers.
“Two weeks in a row now, we are struggling just to kick a PAT or a field goal. It’s disappointing,” said Payton, who also referenced a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown in a Week 2 loss to the New York Giants. “There are some things that you have to be able to do at our level.
“We have to be smart enough in the game early to understand the turnovers aren’t good and punting is not a bad thing. We already know that we’re playing with a close margin of error or else you win 50 of these, you lose 50. So I think that we have to be a lot smarter, and certainly as a head coach, I have to do a better job of that point of emphasis.”
The Saints couldn’t wait to get back on the field after their nightmare 25-23 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, which included four turnovers and an extra point being blocked and returned for a winning two-point conversion with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining.
They never could have imagined that things would get worse.
New Orleans had two more turnovers in the first half Thursday night -- a sack-fumble by Drew Brees on the opening drive and a wobbly interception by Brees in the second quarter. Then the Saints saw a 38-yard field goal attempt by kicker Wil Lutz blocked in the final minute of the first half, setting up a 40-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Ted Ginn Jr. that gave Carolina a 20-3 lead at halftime.
Running back Marcus Murphy also botched a kickoff return in the first half, fumbling it out of bounds at the 1-yard line. And the Saints were hurt by at least two special-teams blocking penalties in the second half, when every yard mattered.
Murphy’s job could be in some jeopardy, since he was inactive for most of the season and was playing only because of a toe injury to regular returner Travaris Cadet.
It will be interesting to find out if others are in the doghouse, as well, including the rookie kicker Lutz or the veteran special-teams coordinator Greg McMahon.
The Saints can now trace at least four of their losses, in part, to major special-teams miscues: the past two weeks; Week 2 at New York and Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons, when they saw two players collide in fumbling away a punt return.
"It's tough right now. I really felt like I let this team down," Lutz said, though he vowed that no one will work harder than him to correct it.
The Saints cleaned up their act in Thursday's second half, showing off the potential that makes their mistakes all the more frustrating.
The defense was stellar for the second consecutive week, allowing three points and 83 yards in the second half and a total of just 223 yards all game.
And Brees completed 19 of 23 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
But the Saints had to move the ball slowly and methodically against a stout Panthers defense, and they eventually ran out of time.
Payton and Brees said they were OK with the second-half tempo -- which was clearly driving Saints fans nuts on social media -- because they didn’t want to force themselves into mistakes as they did in the first half.
“It’s two weeks in a row now that we’ve had [those early turnovers] and two weeks in a row that we’ve had a blocked kick that’s resulted in pretty catastrophic results,” Brees said. “I think that we’re doing a lot of good things, but unfortunately there are a couple of critical things that need to be fixed in order for us to win and be successful.
“You’re not gonna win any games [by giving so many opportunities to the opponent]. I don’t care who you are.”