NFC South: Lance Moore

Mitchell/CotcheryUSA TODAY SportsThe swap of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers bring a veteran presence to each locker room.

It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.

Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?

David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.

Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?

Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.

I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.

Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?

Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.

Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?

Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.

The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.

David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?

Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.

How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?

Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.

I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.
The wide receiver position has become an even greater priority for the New Orleans Saints now that they are parting ways with both receiver Lance Moore and pass-catching running back Darren Sproles.

The draft is probably the Saints’ best bet for finding a dynamic young athlete who could develop into a future starter -- and ideally help stretch the field in the short term as part of the rotation. This is a deep class for wide receiver talent, so the Saints could have ample options in Round 1 or the middle rounds of the draft.

But the Saints always prefer to fill their pressing needs in free agency. So I could see them adding a No. 3-type receiver with speed or shiftiness. And an ability to return kicks would be a major plus.

[+] EnlargeMcCluster
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelVersatile Dexter McCluster could fit with the Saints as a replacement for Darren Sproles.
I picked ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson's brain for a few suggestions that could fit that mold. And I particularly loved his suggestion of Kansas City Chiefs receiver/runner/returner Dexter McCluster -- a guy who could help fill both voids by himself.

McCluster has taken turns as a running back, receiver, kick returner and punt returner at different times in his first four NFL seasons. Last season he made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. And he could be a dangerous weapon in the hands of Saints coach Sean Payton.

“I think he would be a good fit,” Williamson said. “Most teams, he might turn into nothing. But I think Payton and (Drew) Brees would use him properly.”

Williamson also thinks Carolina Panthers receiver/return man Ted Ginn Jr. could be an interesting fit in New Orleans, especially after Ginn had a bounceback season last year after underachieving for most of his seven-year career.

“He was a bust for a ninth pick in the draft (for the Miami Dolphins in 2007). But he played pretty well for Carolina. And he can fly,” Williamson said.

If the Saints want to spend a little more money on a receiver/punt returner, they might be interested in the Seattle Seahawks’ Golden Tate, a yards-after-the-catch threat who could be a lot more dangerous in New Orleans’ passing offense.

Maybe they would consider slot receiver/punt returner Julian Edelman from the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ big-play threat Emmanuel Sanders, who has some kick-returning experience. And New Orleans native Jacoby Jones is a speedster who has been better so far as a kick returner than a receiver with the Baltimore Ravens -- but he could certainly provide that deep threat as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver.

The Minnesota Vikings’ Jerome Simpson is another deep threat who could fill that No. 3 role. And Williamson mentioned a deep wild-card possibility in another former first-round underachiever -- the Indianapolis Colts' Darrius Heyward-Bey.

“Everybody hates the guy, and he isn’t a great player. But Darrius Heyward-Bey can still run,” Williamson said. “He wasn’t that big of a bust. And you could get him streaking down the sideline. And you can get him for nothing.”

There aren’t many big-name receivers available in free agency this year. The Denver Broncos' Eric Decker could command the biggest deal, and he might be too costly for the Saints. The New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks could also be costly, though he’s been plagued by injury issues.

Other receivers in the next tier or two include the Green Bay Packers' James Jones, the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts, the Seahawks' Sidney Rice and the Panthers' Brandon LaFell -- plus Lance Moore, of course.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tweeted his displeasure with the Saints' latest roster cuts on Friday evening:

Obviously that tweet is dripping with irony, since Graham is a big reason for the Saints' current salary-cap quandary. The Saints placed the franchise tag on Graham last week, which came with a $7.05 million salary-cap hit. And Graham is believed to be seeking well over $10 million per year in a long-term contract.

However, I don't blame Graham for his contract desires – just like I don't blame quarterback Drew Brees for his average salary of $20 million per year. Those guys are elite players with astronomical market values. But that doesn't necessarily mean there is a direct cause and effect between their salaries and the others.

I think it's telling, though, that Graham's tweet came out shortly after the latest news of Darren Sproles' pending release. That one surprised me more than all of the others, too. The Saints also released receiver Lance Moore earlier on Friday.

The Saints' flurry of offseason moves is clearly tough for a lot of people to swallow -- fans and teammates alike.

It seems cold and callous to suggest that the New Orleans Saints will be OK after releasing longtime receiver Lance Moore. I felt the same way last month after the Saints released four of their all-time great defensive players.

Moore spent nine years as a core member of one of the greatest passing offenses in NFL history. He ranks in the top five in franchise history in receptions and receiving touchdowns. His two-point conversion catch in Super Bowl XLIV will be remembered forever. He's a sure bet for the Saints' Hall of Fame. And fans already have been tweeting about how much they'll miss his touchdown celebrations.

And yet, the Saints probably will be OK without him. Just as they'll probably be fine if they trade or release longtime running back Pierre Thomas.

That's the cold and callous reality of the NFL.

This isn't exactly a salary cap-mandated fire sale that we're seeing in New Orleans. We're just seeing a team that is making some hard but calculated football decisions about the cost of players versus their value.

Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton just had excellent takes on similar decisions being made around the league right now.

Moore's release is a little different from those of Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer because he's still in the tail end of his prime. Moore is 30 years old, which isn't over the hill for a receiver. He just had his first career 1,000-yard season in 2012 and he racked up nearly 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns from 2010-12.

But when I look at the role Moore played with the Saints last season -- and when I look at all the other options available at cheaper prices in both free agency and the draft -- I can understand the Saints' decision.

Moore will now become one of several experienced receivers who can be had on the open market at a discount price. But another team would be wise to take advantage. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder has always been a shifty, sure-handed receiver, used in much the same fashion as Wes Welker on a smaller scale.

I was surprised at how much Moore's role diminished with the Saints last season. After he missed three games with a hand injury early in the season, he spent the rest of the year as the team's No. 3 receiver behind rookie Kenny Stills -- playing less than 50 percent of the snaps when he was in the lineup.

As a result, Moore finished with just 37 catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, plus another four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs.

I felt as though he was underutilized by the Saints last year, especially when their passing offense was stagnant late in the season. But if the Saints projected him in the same role, then it absolutely made sense for them to release him rather than paying him $3.8 million in salary and bonuses.

The Saints will go into this year with veteran Marques Colston and Stills as their top two receivers. And, of course, they have top receiving targets in tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.

After that, they now have a ton of question marks in their receiving corps: unrestricted free-agent veteran Robert Meachem, who is getting older as well; restricted free agent Joe Morgan, who is coming off of a major knee injury; and young prospect Nick Toon, who has shown promise but has been inconsistent.

The Saints will undoubtedly have to dip into free agency and/or the draft for more help -- possibly even in the first round of the draft.

But they can and will find new weapons to emerge in a diverse offense that has always been able to spread the wealth under the direction of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
METAIRIE, La. -- It makes perfect sense for the New Orleans Saints to be shopping running back Pierre Thomas and receiver Lance Moore as possible trade bait, as ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported. I’m not as keen on the idea of trading running back Darren Sproles -- but I at least understand the logic behind considering all of those options.

The idea of trading any of those players must be more palatable to the Saints than the idea of releasing them outright. They’ve been so valuable to New Orleans’ offense for so many years, and all of them still have value going forward.

Moore
Thomas
But the Saints have to make some tough choices because of their salary-cap situation. And Thomas and Moore, especially, have become part-time players whose salaries no longer match the way they’re being used in New Orleans’ offense. That’s why I’ve repeatedly identified them as possible salary-cap casualties or pay-cut candidates throughout this offseason.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think Thomas and Moore could be worth their salaries ($2.9 million and $3.8 million, respectively) if they were featured in more full-time roles. But that is just not how the Saints opted to use them last season as younger players emerged at their positions.

Thomas, 29, played exactly 50 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps last year in the regular season -- and that was before backups Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson stepped up and played their best football in the playoffs. The Saints have an embarrassment of riches at a position that they don’t feature that often in their pass-heavy offense.

Moore, 30, was relegated to the Saints’ third receiver role behind rookie Kenny Stills last season after Moore returned from a hand injury in October. That was a head-scratcher to me. I think Moore was underutilized last season compared to his past production. But if that’s the role the Saints project him in again in 2014, I could see why they might consider making a move.

Sproles, 30, also played in only about 33 percent of the Saints’ snaps during the 15 games in which he was active. And his numbers were slightly down from years past (220 rushing yards , 71 receptions for 604 yards, four total touchdowns.) But I still think his skill set as a dynamic runner/receiver is so unique that he would be much tougher to replace.

As to whether other teams will bite, that is even tougher to predict. The free-agent market for running backs this year seems pretty thin, but the market (and the draft class) for receivers seems pretty deep.

The Saints are estimated to be slightly under the salary cap. And they should be able to carve out millions more in space by restructuring some current contracts. So they don’t have to cut anybody before the start of free agency on Tuesday. But they will probably have to release at least one more player or work out one or two pay cuts if they want to fill needs elsewhere on the roster.
METAIRIE, La. -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints have been through this already in recent years -- needing to trim more than $20 million from their salary cap by the start of the league year March 11. However, this next month will likely be the most emotionally challenging yet in the era of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

It’s entirely possible the Saints could part ways with up to nine of the 13 players remaining from their Super Bowl roster.

Four are unrestricted free agents (safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, offensive tackle Zach Strief and receiver Robert Meachem). Five others could become salary-cap casualties (defensive end Will Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore and running back Pierre Thomas).

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWill Smith has been a Saint for 10 years. An 11th season in New Orleans will be possible only if he takes a pay cut.
The four Super Bowl vets who are most likely to stay on the roster are quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and punter Thomas Morstead.

It’s not exactly the end of an era. The Saints are still bona fide Super Bowl contenders, led by Payton and Brees, and have done a great job of continually reshaping a talented roster. But it’s awfully close.

Payton made a point to emphasize some of the tough decisions that are looming when he was asked about the pending contract negotiations with free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham on Fox Sports 1 last week.

"The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on Year 9, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham," Payton said. "It's very easy to say, 'You are certainly going to get this done.' But you have to understand there is a budget here. That's the challenging part.

"You are going to read these names that have already come across the ticker from Atlanta last week [the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas], and we will be no different."

The Saints are currently projected to be around $13 million to $15 million over the salary cap. If they use the franchise tag on Graham, as expected, they’ll need to carve out about $6.5 million more (a figure that will vault closer to $11 million if Graham is later deemed to be a receiver instead of a tight end). Plus, the Saints will want to clear even more space off the books to sign other free agents and send out restricted-free-agent tenders.

Loomis and the Saints’ front office have proved capable of handling similar circumstances in recent years while remaining fairly aggressive in adding free agents from other teams.

In the process, the Saints have had to let some core players go, such as guard Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod. They’ve also restructured several contracts and agreed to pay cuts with some longtime veterans. We’ll certainly see a combination of all three again this offseason.

Smith and Harper are the most obvious cap-casualty candidates. Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is due to receive $11.55 million in salary and bonuses, and Harper is due $3.15 million. Both players could conceivably come back -- but only if they agree to drastic pay cuts, probably closer to $1 million.

I hate to add Greer’s name to that list, since I think he’s been possibly the Saints’ most underrated core player since 2009. But Greer is due $4.5 million and is rehabbing from a major knee injury suffered in November. So chances are he’ll have to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans.

The next wave of possibilities includes Moore ($3.8 million), Thomas ($2.9 million) and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley ($4.5 million). Moore and Thomas have been in that same category with Greer over the years -- underrated core players and fan favorites. Thomas, in particular, may have just had his best season to date in 2013. However, all three veterans in this group play part-time roles now, which doesn’t match their lofty salaries.

Then there are the free agents. Again, it’s possible the Saints could bring back longtime starters like Strief and Jenkins -- but only if the price tag is extremely palatable. If any other team wants to outbid the Saints for their services, they probably will let them go. Strief, in particular, could be in high demand elsewhere after one of his strongest seasons. Meachem and Vilma could be back at veteran minimum salaries, but the Saints need to add youth at both positions.

Here’s the full list of Saints scheduled to become free agents next month:

Unrestricted free agent starters: TE Jimmy Graham, RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, K Shayne Graham

Unrestricted free-agent reserves: WR Robert Meachem, OT Charles Brown, QB Luke McCown, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, LB Ramon Humber, LB Keyunta Dawson, DE Kenyon Coleman, S Jordan Pugh

Restricted free agents: FB Jed Collins, WR Joe Morgan, S Rafael Bush, DL Tom Johnson
Drew BreesJoe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints trailed 16-0 through three quarters on Saturday in Seattle.
SEATTLE -- The story of the New Orleans Saints' 2013 season can be told in one succinct sentence: They couldn't win at Seattle.

They call this place the Emerald City. But it might as well be made of Kryptonite as far as the Saints are concerned. Their season came to a screeching halt here Saturday with a 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs.

And really, there could not have been a more fitting place for the Saints' season to end.

For the second time in six weeks, the Saints were done in by the two elements that caused them the most problems all season long: a stifling pass defense and some nasty weather conditions.

Drew Brees and New Orleans' prolific passing offense were nonexistent in the first half. And by the time they finally showed up in the second half, they were already down 16-0. Their late rally was exciting -- but ultimately, too little, too late.

"In the end, against a team like this, in their place, in this situation, you gotta play closer to perfect than we did," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said.

So now the Seahawks move on to the NFC Championship Game. And the Saints move into the 2014 offseason, where their top priority has to be figuring out a way to make sure they play more of these January games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next year.

That's where the Saints make opponents look this hapless and hopeless. That's where the Saints force their opponents to play perfect -- just like Seattle does in this stadium that looked like a life-sized snow globe for much of the first half, with sheets of rain blackening the sky.

Brees didn't love the notion that the Saints need to play at home to reach the Super Bowl. But he also couldn't deny the basic truth of the situation.

"If you're saying what's the difference between being on the road here today versus had we been back in New Orleans in the Dome, obviously it's quite a bit different," said Brees, who threw for 34 yards in the first half and 275 in the second half. "I think we can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime. It just hasn't happened for us the times that we've come here. But, yeah, obviously there's a huge advantage to home-field advantage. I mean, we were 8-0 at home this year."

I've covered this Saints team since the beginning of the Brees-Sean Payton era, and I don't think I've seen a combination of opponent and elements that have caused more fits than the Seahawks inside of CenturyLink Field.

"I'd say it is [the biggest challenge we've faced]," Brees said. "The conditions have a lot to do with that. And they're a very stout defense, in all regards -- front four, linebackers, secondary. As complete a defense as there is in the league. I mean, there's a reason that they were top-ranked in so many categories.

"And playing here at home, with that crowd, there's a lot of reasons why they're one of the best."

Last week at Philadelphia, the Saints finally proved they could indeed win a playoff game on the road.

But winning at Seattle proved to be a whole other challenge that they couldn't overcome this year. This one wasn't quite as ugly as the 34-7 shellacking on "Monday Night Football" last month. But it was awfully close for the first 30 minutes.

The Saints were actually happy with their game plan afterward, and I don't really disagree. They stayed patient throughout the first quarter, when the weather was at its nastiest and the wind was in their face. And they were down only 6-0 in the second quarter when they had the ball with the wind at their back.

But then running back Mark Ingram fumbled on the first play of the second quarter -- the game's only turnover and by far the costliest moment of the night. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch scored on a 15-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 lead two plays later.

"Every time I carry that football, I'm carrying the team's dreams and aspirations. And I let them down at a critical moment in the game. And that's unfortunate," Ingram said. "But I worked my butt off, fought hard, and it just wasn't enough today."

That's kind of how the whole team felt. They just weren't good enough on this day.

The Saints' offensive performance was ugly at times. Brees' first pass attempt down the field to a receiver in the second quarter sailed about 10 yards over Lance Moore's head; Brees said it got "caught up in the jet stream." A few of his other early passes were off target while the ball was slick and he was wearing gloves. Receivers dropped several passes.

Brees eventually started getting the ball downfield, but the Seahawks' defense took away both tight end Jimmy Graham (no catches until the final minute) and the Saints' screen passing game throughout the day.

The Saints deserve credit for their resilience, though. The defense was outstanding for most of the second half, forcing five consecutive punts, which allowed the offense to creep within 16-8 and actually get down to Seattle's 25-yard line with 4:09 remaining.

But then those imperfections crept up again. A delay-of-game penalty. A missed 48-yard field goal attempt by Shayne Graham (his second miss of the day). A breakdown by the defense on Lynch's 31-yard touchdown run.

Even when the Saints had one last miracle chance left after an onside kick in the final seconds, receiver Marques Colston threw a forward lateral instead of just running out of bounds to stop the clock.

A fitting finish on a day when the Saints were so far out of their comfort zone.

"Obviously, we planned on playing it differently. At the end of it, we weren't able to make enough plays," Payton said. "But I'm proud of the way our guys competed. We weren't able to get it done, and we just go from here. It's tough. It's always tough when you get this far and you're not able to finish.

"Obviously, it wasn't enough for what we aspire to do."
SEATTLE -- History has been repeating itself so far in the first half at Seattle. The Seattle Seahawks are dominating the New Orleans Saints on both sides of the ball, just like they did six weeks ago. Seattle is leading the game 16-0 and winning the turnover battle 1-0.

Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Costly fumble: The biggest moment of the game was Saints running back Mark Ingram’s fumble on the first play of the second quarter (forced and recovered by Seattle end Michael Bennett). It was a momentum-killer in more ways than one. For one thing, it gave Seattle the ball at New Orleans’ 24-yard line and set up a 15-yard TD run by Marshawn Lynch two plays later that put Seattle up 13-0.

For another thing, that was the moment the Saints had been waiting for. After patiently running the ball throughout the first quarter, waiting to get the heavy wind at their back in the second quarter, they wasted the opportunity immediately. ...The Saints’ run game has been effective for most of the day (15 carries for 79 yards). But that fumble nullified all the positives. And the passing game has been non-existent.

Weather a factor: The rain and wind (not to mention Seattle’s defense) has conspired to completely shut down New Orleans’ passing offense. Drew Brees completed just 5 of 12 passes for 34 yards -- and only one of them to a non-running back. When Brees finally started airing it out with the wind behind him in the second quarter, his first pass sailed out of his hand, way over the head of receiver Lance Moore. Two other passes were slightly off target, and one was dropped by tight end Josh Hill. Ingram also dropped a screen pass in the first quarter.

Saints kicker Shayne Graham also missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, slightly off to the left -- which could have been weather-related (though video showed the laces were turned in). And both punters have hit poor punts into the wind (once after Saints punter Thomas Morstead dropped the snap).

The weather isn’t expected to let up in the second half.

Defense decent: The defense broke down once -- on Lynch's 15-yard touchdown run through at least three missed tackles. Other than that, they’ve tried their best to keep New Orleans in this game, forcing Seattle to settle for field goals despite some good field position.

They haven’t made the kind of game-changing big play, however, that New Orleans desperately needs in this matchup. Quarterback Russell Wilson is 7 of 9 passing for 68 yards. He has been sacked twice. Lynch has 69 yards on 15 carries.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' NFL record for single-season passing yards was broken on Sunday by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

Or was it?

According to ESPN.com's Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, the league's record-keepers were taking a closer look at whether or not a 7-yard pass by Manning on Sunday should have been ruled as a lateral instead -- as is customary after every NFL weekend. The Elias Sports Bureau reviews such plays and often makes slight adjustments (as fantasy football players can attest).

Brees
Manning
Manning wound up breaking Brees' record by just one yard, since he didn't play in the second half. Manning finished the season with 5,477 yards. Brees set the record with 5,476 in 2011.

Either way, I think it's safe to say that Brees isn't rooting to keep his record via a loophole. He knows full well that Manning could have played another series to pass him up. And he knew for several weeks that his record was in jeopardy.

Brees talked about Manning's accomplishment after the Saints' 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

When first told that Manning wound up beating him by one yard, Brees said, “Are you kidding me? Wow.” Then he was told that Manning sat out the rest of the game after the mark was broken.

“Well, I guess had I had a hundred more yards, they would have kept him in and he would have eventually broken it anyway,” Brees said. “Listen, he and that team has had a storybook year, in regards to the numbers they've been able to put up and the way that they've played. A lot of credit to him and his preparation and his level of play. It's impressive. All records are made to be broken.

“I thought I might have that one for a little bit longer than just two years. But records are made to be broken.”

Short-week schedules: A Saturday night playoff game means a short week for both the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles.

The two teams will take different approaches to the practice week -- but only because they've taken different approaches to their practice schedules all year long. During normal weeks, the Saints practice on a typical Wednesday-through-Friday schedule, like most NFL teams. The Eagles, however, practice on Tuesdays before tapering off toward the end of the week.

This week, the Saints will stick with the same schedule that worked for them during their last short week (following a Monday night game in Week 14). They'll wait until Wednesday to hold their first practice. Then they'll abbreviate their normal workload at the end of the week.

That means players will have today off. Coach Sean Payton talks often about how the team values recovery time after games.

However, as ESPN.com's Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan wrote Monday, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly likes to have that physical rest time later in the week. So the Eagles will still practice today, then they'll subtract a normal practice day from the end of the week.

“(Tuesday) is Wednesday, Wednesday's Thursday, Thursday's Friday, Friday's Saturday,” Kelly said. “You just subtract a day. We got off the field and they told us we're playing Saturday. We can't call a timeout and say we need an extra day. But the team you're playing is in exactly the same situation. No one gets an advantage.”

Saints-Eagles page: Follow all of Phil's coverage and all of ESPN.com's coverage leading up to Saturday's playoff game on this Saints-Eagles page throughout the week. And follow Phil on Twitter @SheridanScribe.

One other interesting tidbit that should give Saints fans hope from that Chip Kelly story on Monday was Kelly's reference to the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming into Philadelphia and winning a road playoff game in freezing weather. The Buccaneers had an even more daunting history when it came to cold-weather performances at the time.

Said Kelly: “Tampa Bay couldn't win a game in cold weather until they came in here. So we're not going to get caught up in that one, I can tell you that.”

All over the map: I have to credit Twitter follower @sramkuma for pointing this out since I hadn't noticed it before. But during the Saints' five playoff appearances in the Brees-Payton era, they've never had the same seed twice. They were a No. 1 seed when they won the Super Bowl in 2009, a No. 2 seed in 2006, a No. 3 seed in 2011, a No. 5 seed in 2010 and a No. 6 seed in 2013.

Moore's inspiration: Something else I didn't realize at the time that I learned from the Saints' fan base was that the inspiration for Saints receiver Lance Moore's unusual touchdown celebration Sunday -- a comedy skit on touchdown celebrations by Comedy Central's Key and Peele. I'm sure Payton wasn't laughing, though, after fellow receiver Kenny Stills drew a penalty by helping Moore act out the skit.

Worth a click:
  • We traced Brees' path through Dan Graziano's MVP Watch for ESPN.com all season. But in the end, it was a runaway victory for Manning. Here's all of Graziano's postseason accolades.
  • Sunday's blowout loss at New Orleans proved to be the last straw for Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, who was fired Monday. Here's ESPN.com's Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas' take on why Schiano was never a fit in Tampa.
  • In this Insider piece, ESPN.com's Mike Sando ranks the teams best positioned for success in 2014 Insider. He has the Saints at No. 6.

Saints are missing the points

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
12:03
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- One thing has stood out above all else during the New Orleans Saints' recent slide: They're missing the points.

The Saints have averaged less than 17 points per game over the past five weeks (going 2-3 in the process). In their three losses, they scored 7, 16 and 13 points. They haven't had a stretch like this since their 0-4 start to the 2007 season and 0-3 finish to the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and Co. are trying to zero in on why the Saints' offense has stalled in losses, including a 17-13 loss at Carolina in Week 16.
All three of those losses have come on the road, which is a greater over-arching problem this year for the Saints (10-5 overall, 3-5 on the road). But the offensive inconsistency has been a source of frustration -- especially since it's so unfamiliar around here.

When asked what he thinks about the way the offense has been playing, veteran receiver Lance Moore responded bluntly: "Not the way that we should be playing."

"Our best teams here have been extremely balanced, we've made a lot of big plays, tried to limit the turnovers, protected the quarterback. I think this offense is kind of hot and cold," Moore said. "Some weeks we come out and we are exceptional, we come out and we throw the ball all over the field and score a lot of points. Some weeks we come out like the Seattle game we had (188) yards of offense. It's kind of the way the season has been for us.

"We are becoming one of those colder teams that can potentially be limping into the playoffs. We've got to find a way to make sure that this offense gets back to the days we were great and we were extremely successful like the Super Bowl season (2009)."

That balance has certainly been missing for the Saints this year. They rank second in the NFL in passing yards (303.2 per game) and 25th in rushing yards (91.7 per game). That's the second-lowest rushing total in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, which dates back to 2006.

But that being said, the pass-run balance isn't really that different from most years. And it has never kept the Saints from putting up points.

In fact, a closer examination of every offensive statistical category doesn't show any glaring areas where the Saints are struggling overall this season compared to their recent history.

Their sack totals are definitely up -- 36 allowed so far this year, which is 10 more than the previous high. But Brees' passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentage all rank among the best of his career.

Everything else has just been inconsistency in a variety of categories across the board.

And some of the lower point totals are by design. The Saints have won some low-scoring games this year by playing smart, patient football. And their defense is better than it has ever been in the Payton-Brees era, which means less shootouts and more chess matches. The Saints' time of possession is the highest it's been in that stretch, and their turnovers are among the lowest.

"We talk about this all the time, you don't just go in every game with the idea that it's going to be 'X, Y and Z.' You pay attention to how (a game is) being played out," Payton explained, specifically discussing the way he didn't mind fighting a field-position battle against the Carolina Panthers last week that the Saints were winning until the fateful final minute of a 17-13 loss.

Obviously, though, as offensive tackle Zach Strief said, the Saints certainly aren't ignoring the recent scoring trend, and it's something they know they need to fix.

It's just hard to identify one specific reason. When asked what ha's been the biggest problem area, Strief said simply, "Scoring points. And it's the most important thing."

Strief did bring up two areas where the Saints have noticeably been struggling more than others in recent weeks. They're not forcing many turnovers, which obviously affects scoring opportunities. And they're not hitting on many big plays down the field.

Brees was 3-of-6 on passes thrown 15 yards or more down the field at Carolina. He was 2-of-7 in a loss at St. Louis a week earlier and 0-for-8 in a loss at Seattle in Week 13.

Brees' overall numbers on deep throws aren't significantly down from years past. But the home-road split is pretty eye-popping. According to ESPN Stats & Information, on passes thrown 15 yards down the field or more, Brees has completed 58.7 percent at home with 10 touchdowns, and 40.9 percent on the road with four touchdowns.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with the opponents, some of whom did an excellent job of playing physical in pass coverage (namely Seattle, Carolina and New England). Teams that can disrupt the Saints' pass routes down the field have always been the most successful against New Orleans' high-powered offense.

"I feel like we haven't had maybe enough of those ('shot plays') lately," Brees said. "They come and go in spurts at times, but certainly it's stuff we're always looking for."

"The yards per completion, the big plays, are something that we still make an emphasis on, and it is still an important part of what we do," Payton said. "And yet, that should be something that you feel comfortable with, and you feel like the defense you are seeing gives you an opportunity at that play."

The Saints have made up the difference with a heavy dose of underneath throws to tight end Jimmy Graham and more throws than ever to running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. But Payton said it's still a balance he'd like to improve.

"I think probably as a coach you're never happy," Payton said. "You are always looking to find ways to get the ball down the field."
Vincent Jackson and Cameron JordanGetty ImagesVincent Jackson and the Bucs would love to keep Cameron Jordan's Saints out of the playoffs.

Technically, Sunday’s regular-season finale between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is meaningful for only one team.

The Saints (10-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, and they still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Coach Sean Payton and players have said they plan to treat this like a playoff game. And they certainly need to get some momentum back after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Carolina have threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

However, the Buccaneers (4-11) would love to end their season on a high note by playing spoiler against their NFC South rivals inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs have a history of doing that, with December wins at New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup.

Triplett: Tell me what kind of effort you expect from the Bucs in this one. Are they still passionate about winning this late in the season? Fired up about the chance to possibly keep New Orleans out of the playoffs? Fighting for coach Greg Schiano's job?

Yasinskas: Mike, the one thing the Bucs haven't done this season is quit. Even during the 0-8 start, the effort was still there. I don't know that the players are playing to try to save Schiano's job as much as they are simply playing for pride. I have no doubt they'll show up on Sunday. The Bucs aren't big fans of the Saints, and they'd love to play the role of spoiler. That said, I don't know that the Bucs can hang with the Saints in the Superdome.

Do you think the Saints will be playing with anger because they're in this position?

Triplett: It's hard to guess what kind of emotions will be most prevalent. There could be anger. There could be determination, knowing they can't afford another loss. Or there could be a deflated feeling, since they never expected to be in this position. One way or another, though, they'll have to figure out a way to channel those emotions. As receiver Lance Moore said, if the Saints can't bring their best effort to this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. And it obviously helps that they'll be back in the Superdome, where they're 7-0 this season -- often dominating opponents.

How do you think Mike Glennon will handle that dome atmosphere? Has he reached that stage yet where people like to say he's "not a rookie anymore"?

Yasinskas: About a month ago, people were starting to say Glennon didn't look like a rookie. But that's changed in recent weeks. He has had some rookie moments in the past four games and his numbers have dipped. I don't think Glennon is regressing. I think he just ran into some good defenses and struggled against them, and he has received no help from the running game. The deck would seem to be stacked against him coming into the Superdome against a New Orleans team with a lot on the line.

Mike, tell me about the New Orleans defense. Before you joined us and I was still covering the whole NFC South, I visited Saints camp this summer and had very real doubts that they had the right personnel to run Rob Ryan's defense. As it turns out, this is a very good defense. Why has Ryan's defense worked so well?

Triplett: How could you not have seen this coming?! Obviously, you're right -- the Saints' defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, especially considering all the injuries you witnessed in summer camps. The success is due to a combination of Ryan's coaching and talent emerging. End Cameron Jordan is having a bona fide Pro Bowl season as a power rusher. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a true No. 1 corner who was a great pickup in free agency. Outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are young players who have emerged (though Vaccaro is now out for the season).

But Ryan deserves a ton of the credit. He's creative and adaptable, switching from a true 3-4 defense to build around his best players. And he mixes things up from week to week and even snap to snap. Players love that, because they're all involved in certain packages. And they love his personality and attitude, saying he has made the game "fun."

Tell me about the evolution of the Bucs' defense. I thought they lived up to the hype when I saw them give the Saints all they could handle in Week 2 (with both legal and illegal hits). How are they playing heading into this game?

Yasinskas: The defense is the least of Tampa Bay's problems. An anemic offense is what held Tampa Bay back all season. Overall, the defense has played very well.

After finishing last in the NFL against the pass last year, the Bucs went out and got cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, and they have made the secondary respectable. But I think the two best players on this defense are in the front seven. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are having huge seasons. These guys have what it takes to be Pro Bowl regulars, and this defense should only keep getting better. Still, facing the Saints in the dome is a tough task for any defense.

The thing I've always admired about Drew Brees and Sean Payton is how much they spread the ball around. How have the receivers beyond Marques Colston and Moore panned out this season?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have actually been more up and down this year than at any other time in the Payton-Brees era. At times, Colston and rookie Kenny Stills have had some big moments, and Stills looks like a great find who has actually supplanted Moore as the Saints' No. 2 receiver. And the Saints still have good depth with Moore and Robert Meachem. But they rely most on tight end Jimmy Graham and backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the passing game.

Some defenses have done a good job of getting physical with the Saints' receivers and Graham downfield (including Carolina last week) -- which is the best way to slow down New Orleans' offense. But all bets are off inside the dome. Almost all of those quiet receiving days came on the road.

METAIRIE, La. – The emotions coming out of New Orleans Saints camp were still a bit mixed on Monday after a crushing 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

But the message was pretty universal: All the Saints (10-5) can control now is how they respond in this week’s regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and the Saints slipped up Sunday, but the playoffs are still well within their grasp.
“We’re approaching this like a playoff game itself,” said coach Sean Payton, who said his main message to players on Monday was to avoid trying to figure out all the scenarios about how the Saints could clinch various playoff seeds based on the results from other games – and to just focus on what they can control on their own.

Win, and they’re in. And they wouldn’t want to get in any other way.

“It’s our last game, we’re playing at home, and if guys aren’t going to be ready to play then we don’t deserve to be in the playoffs anyway,” receiver Lance Moore said. “We have to take care of business this week, and everything should be OK. Once we are in, we still have a chance. It doesn’t matter where we have to go to play or who we have to play, getting in is our first goal this week.”

“Although that hurts to lose those types of games, we still know what we have and we know what we are capable of. So I think our confidence is still high,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “I think we know once we get into the tournament we are going to be a team to reckon with. But first, to get to there, we have to get this win this week. So I think all the focus goes there and fixing the things we need to fix.”

There was less consensus when it came to describing the emotions of Sunday’s loss – both in the postgame locker room and during Monday conference calls with Payton and the two veteran players. Payton and several players talked after the game about how encouraged they were by the team’s effort. But others, including Moore, said it was hard to be encouraged after the Saints let the game slip away in the final minutes.

“I wasn’t,” Moore said. “You know, Coach can speak for how he feels. But I wasn’t encouraged. I was disappointed. I was upset. I felt like we let one go, and I would be almost positive that most players would say the same thing.”

Regardless, the goal now is to move past that painful defeat and remain confident and energized enough to beat the Buccaneers and head into the playoffs with some momentum.

Payton said he’s not worried about the Saints being deflated. He said he thinks players were “fairly upbeat” on Monday.

"Obviously all of us hurt from that loss. It stung," Payton said. "But I think they felt pretty good about the preparation and the plan going in, and they did a great job of executing it."

Jenkins agreed with that assessment Monday, saying the team’s confidence won’t take a hit moving forward.

“I think today is probably going to be a little more on the somber side because it was a tough loss,” Jenkins said. “But I don’t think we have time to dwell on it, because we still have our goals. It might be a rougher road, we still don’t know what’s ahead of us. But we do know that if we win this week – and we must win this week – then we get into the tournament, and that’s all that matters. That’s what we’ve worked for in OTAs, in summer training, in training camp, all that, is just to get to the tournament.

“We don’t have time to sit here and lick our wounds and feel bad and think that we’re going to show up Sunday and just automatically get a win. We’re going to go prepared, just like we did last week, we had a great week of preparation. It’s got to be the same tempo, the same tone and intentions, and go out there and get a win.”
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NEW ORLEANS -- You thought the New Orleans Saints proved how dangerous they were last week, when they played a nearly perfect game in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys?

Well, the Saints took it up another notch on Sunday with a scrappy, sometimes-ugly 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.

"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.

The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.

"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."

Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.

It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.

"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."

"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.

"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."

Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."

The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks and Drew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThis one wasn't easy. Just ask Drew Brees, who was leveled by an Ahmad Brooks clothesline.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.

"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."

The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.

Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.

The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.

Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. … And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."

Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.

Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."

"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."

Halftime report: Saints 14, 49ers 10

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
6:25
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints lead the San Francisco 49ers 14-10 at halftime, thanks to a dominant defensive performance. But there have been a series of big moments that have kept the game close.

Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Greer injured: The Saints' defense got off to a great start but suffered a big blow when cornerback Jabari Greer was carted off with a left knee injury in the first quarter. The exact injury has not been reported, but it looked significant. He required an air cast on the field. … Greer has been a solid veteran presence for the Saints' resurgent defense this year, so he'll be missed quite a bit. Second-year pro Corey White is a solid backup, though, and he did intercept a pass in the second quarter (before fumbling it through the end zone).

Big mistakes: White's fumble took seven potential points off the board for the Saints. After a 43-yard interception return, he got greedy and tried to extend the ball over the goal line. Even more costly was Saints receiver Lance Moore's fumbled punt return in the second quarter that gave San Francisco the ball at New Orleans' 11-yard line and led to the 49ers' only touchdown. Moore also dropped a third-down pass in the first quarter -- uncharacteristic mistakes for the veteran.

Big makeup: The Saints' special teams evened things out with an 82-yard kickoff return by Travaris Cadet in the second quarter that led to a touchdown. That's an area where the Saints haven't generated much this year. But it came at the right time.

Saints creative ‘D': Other than the 11-yard TD drive, the Saints' defense was excellent in the first half. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan showed off his creativity more than ever before. He started the game in a 3-5 alignment with only three defensive backs on the field. Later, he had only two true defensive linemen on the field with end Keyunta Dawson and outside linebacker Parys Haralson lining up as defensive tackles. The Saints also had six DBs on the field at times.

Saints' balanced offense: The Saints haven't run the ball a ton, but they've been effective when they have run it (46 yards and a touchdown on nine carries). They aren't lighting up the scoreboard, but they're doing enough to win (and the margin would be greater if not for those miscues).

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