NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sean Payton was especially terse after the New Orleans Saints let another close game slip away in the final seconds.
The Saints coach knew his team squandered an opportunity to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams on the road in Sunday’s 23-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans (with an assist from a questionable roughing the passer penalty that still had him steaming hours later).
And now he finds himself in unfamiliar territory – making sure the Saints don’t let this season slip away. After two straight losses, their 5-4 record is their worst at this stage since 2016.
“It’s the attention to detail, obviously. We look at it as coaches too, starting with me. But pretty soon we start looking at who’s doing it,” Payton said of the self-inflicted wounds, like penalties and dropped passes, that have now sabotaged his team two weeks in a row.
“We start evaluating who’s making plays and who’s not. That just is what it is, that’s our league.”
It was clear why Payton was so frustrated, because he said multiple times he thought the Saints “had a good plan coming in with this game specifically,” even though they were missing key players such as running back Alvin Kamara and left tackle Terron Armstead (for this week) and quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Michael Thomas (for the rest of the season).
Instead, for the second week in a row, Payton had to spend his postgame press conference going through the roll call of everything that went wrong:
What happened on the two missed extra points by kicker Brian Johnson? “Missed 'em left.”
What was the explanation from officials on the roughing the passer penalty in the second quarter that wiped out New Orleans’ interception in the end zone? “No explanation.”
So … ? “There wasn’t an explanation. What do you want me to say? You want my opinion on it? No, no opinion on it.”
How did tight end Adam Trautman’s false-start penalty on New Orleans’ game-tying two-point conversion attempt change the play he wanted to run? “I’m not gonna tell you what play it was. Seriously. Next question, next question. Obviously it changes the play when you go from the 2 to the 7.”
It’s unclear who, exactly, Payton was referencing when he made his ominous comment about “who’s making plays and who’s not.” But the Saints were flagged for nine penalties for 65 yards Sunday and dropped at least three catchable passes – two major issues that carried over from last week’s 27-25 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
After having a night to sleep on the loss and review the tape, Payton still acknowledged how much this one stung.
“Listen, being honest, it’s gut-wrenching,” Payton said Monday morning. “If you want to know truthfully, so much goes into the week and it’s always difficult when you lose. And then when you lose in a fashion where ‘it is what it is,’ that’s even more difficult to accept.
“And so then you’ve kind of gotta bounce back here today. That’s why it’s a tough job. And you’ve gotta kind of regroup and get your players back and get the focus and the energy shifted so that one doesn’t become two, and two doesn’t become three. That’s important. But yeah you’re encouraged (as well). You’re looking at the tape and wanting to see guys play each play in a manner where it’s better than it has been. And we’re doing that in some areas. And then some areas where there’s some simple penalties or simple mistakes that just need to be cleaned up. And then some areas where, ‘Are they good enough or not?’ Those are honest questions. But the way you feel after one where, like yesterday, it’s difficult.”
Another disturbing trend: The Saints started 1 of 6 on third downs Sunday before they finally found some rhythm.
Meanwhile, Payton did actually throw out some positives too -- complimenting things including quarterback Trevor Siemian’s performance in the fourth quarter and running back Mark Ingram II’s effort in place of Kamara.
Siemian completed 19 of 34 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers, giving himself a great chance to hold on to the starting quarterback role for a third straight game next week at the Philadelphia Eagles. Ingram gained 108 yards from scrimmage and ran for a touchdown while breaking Deuce McAllister’s franchise record of 6,096 career rushing yards.
“You’ve gotta be able to still play,” Payton said of a relentless rash of injuries that has plagued New Orleans all season. “And that’s the one thing we’ve been able to do – fight through it. So we’ll continue to do that.”
Some of Payton's players also spoke with optimism.
When asked if they need to make sure that losses don’t snowball, every player who spoke Sunday said they have confidence in the makeup of the team. The Saints already have overcome a good deal of adversity early this season, including the injuries and being relocated to Dallas for four weeks after Hurricane Ida.
“I appreciate the fight in our team,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “Our team responds to adversity the right way. One thing I appreciate about coming to work with this team … guys will be right back into work figuring out how they can get better.
“I think we’ve got a good group of guys that understand it’s very hard to win in this league. Though we’ve won a lot of games here, we don’t take that for granted. But we know what it takes to win, and we know how to handle adversity.”
History says Davis is right. This is only the third time in four-plus years that the Saints have lost back-to-back games. They’ve never lost three in a row in that span.