Saints still have work to do vs. Panthers

Displeased with how the Saints have played lately, coach Sean

Payton wants to turn things around before the playoffs.

“It’s important for us to play well this week,” Payton said,

referring to the Saints’ regular-season finale at Carolina, which

is now devoid of playoff implications. “We have to find the

corrections and … view it as an opportunity for us to get things

corrected before it becomes a more important game.”

The Saints became locked in as the top seed in the NFC playoffs

when Minnesota lost at Chicago on Monday night.

In 42 previous seasons, the Saints have made the playoffs only

six times and have never been the No. 1 seed. Such an achievement

might have been easier for the Saints to enjoy if they weren’t in

the midst of a two-game losing streak.

“It’s important for us to not go on a three-game losing

streak,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “We’re going to

have to sit down and think about what we need to do to get better

and start winning again.”

After opening the season with 13 victories, the Saints (13-2)

took their first loss against playoff-bound Dallas in stride. They

understood that it was an important game for the Cowboys, and

credited Dallas for holding on to win 24-17.

Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay was much tougher to take. The Saints

had hoped to clinch the NFC’s top seed on the field – instead of

watching the Bears help them do it – and envisioned their last

regular-season home game ending in a celebration with their

fans.

Initially, it seemed as if that would happen as they jumped

ahead 17-0.

In the end, though, the Saints walked off the Louisiana

Superdome turf embarrassed by a 20-17 overtime loss, which marked

the first time a 13-win team had lost to a team that came in with

only two victories.

“After a loss like that, you have a lot of concerns,”

linebacker Scott Fujita said. “My biggest concern is we didn’t

finish the game like we have all season. That, to me, sticks out.

… We started the game fast, which has been a problem the last

couple of weeks. But the energy just didn’t sustain and I’m a

little concerned about that. I don’t know why that happened.

“All of us didn’t play as well as we should have in the second

half. That’s all I can say,” Fujita added. “We’ll take a good

hard look at ourselves and move on from there. Obviously we’re

extremely disappointed. We lost a game (Sunday) we didn’t have any

business in losing.”

When Payton returned to the Saints’ suburban training

headquarters on Monday, he spent a couple hours going over video of

the loss to the Buccaneers, trying to identify why the Saints’

offense came up a yard short three times on drive-stalling

third-down plays, or why New Orleans’ defense had trouble stopping

Tampa Bay running backs, who combined for 176 yards rushing.

Stopping Carolina may be even tougher. The Panthers have won

impressively against Minnesota 26-7 and the New York Giants 41-9 in

the past two weeks.

The Saints, who made double-digit victories commonplace earlier

this season, haven’t beaten anyone that badly in a while now.

Before losing two in a row, New Orleans narrowly pulled out

three-point wins against non-playoff teams in Washington and

Atlanta.

Still, Payton remained confident in his club’s ability to turn

things around before it’s too late.

“We have a smart team and they understand the challenges and

they understand that we’re going to have to play better to have

success when the second season begins,” Payton said. “Ultimately,

they also realize that this team will be measured on how we play in

the postseason. I think what’s most important is for all of us to

closely look at some things that we have to get back to doing that

we’ve done earlier in the year or in any of our wins.”