The New Orleans Saints' 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday didn't prevent them from winning the NFC South or hosting a playoff game next weekend.
Carolina's 22-10 loss at Atlanta left the Panthers tied with the Saints at 11-5 and New Orleans won the division title because it won both games against the Panthers this season. So the third meeting between the teams in the wild-card playoff game Sunday afternoon will be held in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But even though the loss didn't damage the Saints' first-round playoff circumstances, it raised concerns about the team's performance heading into the playoffs.
"There's that element of, man, we won the NFC South, and then there's that other element of we've got a lot of work to do to get ready to play at our best starting next week at home," head coach Sean Payton said.
The defense struggled against quarterback Jameis Winston even while making three interceptions. Tampa Bay drove 95 yards and scored the winning touchdown on a 39-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left.
"That left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," Payton said.
The offense was inconsistent and managed just two touchdowns.
The special teams got off to a great start with Alvin Kamara's 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but later attempted a fake field goal that failed and Tommylee Lewis fumbled a punt and the Bucs recovered it and returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
"We definitely have to play better if we're going to have success in the playoffs," running back Mark Ingram II said.
The good news for the Saints is they played well and had success in both games against Carolina, prevailing 34-13 on the road and 31-21 at home.
The Saints ran 23 fewer offensive plays than the Buccaneers and possessed the ball for less than 29 minutes. Those numbers were impacted significantly by the fact that the Buccaneers kept the chains moving by converting 13-of-18 third downs.
Running back Mark Ingram II and fellow running back Alvin Kamara became the first pair of running backs on the same team to have at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season.
The offensive line was the least stable position on the team, but featured the two most stable participants during the regular season. The Saints rearranged the line several times because of injury but center Max Unger and tackle Ryan Ramczyk were the only players on the team to play every snap.
FB Zach Line scored his first career touchdown when he caught a 3-yard pass from Drew Brees in the fourth quarter Sunday.
WR Michael Thomas set a franchise record for pass receptions in a season (104).
REPORT CARD vs. BUCS
PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus
Drew Brees completed 22-of-30 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown. Michael Thomas caught six passes for 94 yards and RB Alvin Kamara caught six for 84 yards, but the offense wasn't consistent enough. The protection was good overall, but the one sack of Brees came on a late third down when the Saints would have been able to run out the clock if they had converted.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C
The Saints didn't run the ball a lot and averaged just 3.5 yards when they did. The defense's inability to stop the Bucs limited the offense's opportunities and ultimately neither Ingram nor Kamara had a big day running the ball. Ingram rushed 13 times for 35 yards and Kamara nine times for 44 yards.
PASS DEFENSE: C
It's hard to make three interceptions and not get a good grade, but that was the case here because Winston also passed for 345 yards and took his team 95 yards through the air with no timeouts to score the winning touchdown with nine seconds left. The pass rush wasn't up to par, though Cam Jordan had a sack, and the tackling in the secondary was below average.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus
Tampa Bay averaged 3.9 yards on 28 rushes. It did just enough to complement Winston's passing and scored two touchdowns on the ground.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus
Talk about a mixed bag. The return game scored a touchdown and gave away a touchdown. Throw in the failed fake field goal and the bad outweighed the good even though Wil Lutz made his only field-goal attempt and three of Thomas Morstead's four punts were downed inside the 20.
The Saints never got control of the game even though they led for most of it. The defense on third down was awful, the offense wasn't up to its usual standards and the special teams had significant breakdowns. Overall, the coaches' performance matched that of the players.
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