Saints finish with a whimper as Drew Brees sits, defense flops

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints had better hope that Week 17 was truly meaningless.

Because they somehow played worse than expected on Sunday -- especially on defense -- in a 33-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers that technically didn't matter with the NFC's No. 1 seed already locked up.

Although the Saints (13-3) kept some starters such as Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara inactive, they started their normal defense for the entire first half while falling behind 23-0 to undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen.

It was the first time the Saints had been shut out in the first half of a home game since 2001. And coach Sean Payton didn't let them off the hook afterward.

"You don't come in here and say, 'It's gonna be a great learning [experience]. There's nothing about it that's good. It's disappointing ... coaches and players, all of us," Payton said. "We can spin it any way we want to -- we didn't play well. Listen, it starts with me. We'll get the corrections made. But we didn't play well. Credit Carolina, they came ready to play.

"[The defense] wasn't good, it wasn't good. We didn't get any pressure on the quarterback, we didn't tackle well. Holding the receivers. Pick something. Run fits weren't good. ... Listen, you can't just turn it on and off and decide when you want to -- this game has never been like that. ... You take that personally as a coach, and it was disappointing. We played poorly."

Ideally the Saints will in fact be able to "turn it back on" when they host their playoff opener in the divisional round in two weeks against the NFC's lowest-remaining seed at the time.

History suggests they'll be able to. They became the first team to lose its final three regular-season games in 2009 before winning a Super Bowl that year. But obviously they weren't looking for a free pass after this finale flop.

"We could have been 14-2. We're 13-3. I'm pissed. I'm overly irritated about not being able to capitalize on our situation at hand," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "We only have 16 given opportunities, and when we play our best ball, we're unbeatable. ... I'm never going to be excited about not putting our best foot forward, especially heading into the playoffs. I feel like we've showed we're progressing every game. And this game, I don't think we showed that.

"You're trying to make a statement with your defense. ... We try to make a statement game and that's not the statement we definitely want to release."

As Payton referenced, the Saints' defense struggled in every area. Not only was Allen making his first career start, but star Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey also left the game after one series.

But the real daggers came in the deep passing game -- which is especially disturbing since that has been a nagging problem for the Saints' defense throughout the season. Saints cornerbacks Eli Apple and Ken Crawley were each flagged for deep pass interference penalties. And Allen and receiver D.J. Moore connected on a beautiful 38-yard throw and catch against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore near the sideline.

In the second half against the Saints' backups, Allen completed a 53-yard TD pass to receiver Curtis Samuel.

As for the Saints' offense, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater played decently during his first start in nearly three years -- considering he was under constant pressure behind a makeshift offensive line that included only one usual starter for most of the game.

Bridgewater, who had not started a game since he suffered a major knee injury with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, completed 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Both the TD and the pick came early in the fourth quarter.

Saints' third-string running back Dwayne Washington was even more impressive, running for 108 yards on 11 carries -- all in the second half.

But Bridgewater and Washington ideally won't be needed again for the remainder of the Saints' playoff run. The offense will look totally different two weeks from now, since Brees, Kamara, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and starting offensive linemen Terron Armstead, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk all did not play.

Hopefully for the Saints' sake, everything about Sunday's game will look different the next time they enter this building.