METAIRIE, La. — Way back in the pre-golden era, say in 2008, the Saints had issues finishing games.
So much so, in fact, that the team entered the 2009 season with a motto that stuck – finish strong.
Three seasons later, the Saints are suddenly like that 2008 team. They’re not finishing games.
Problem is, they’re not really sure why.
“Um. Uh. I don’t know,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “I think it’s obviously complicated. There’s a lot of things that go into it.”
The issue is something New Orleans hopes to correct before Sunday when it faces the New York Giants (7-5) at 3:25 p.m. in MetLife Stadium.
Yes indeed, the Saints’ problems with finishing are like a fine gumbo – lots of ingredients that when one isn’t working, the whole thing just feels off.
The game against the Falcons was only the latest example. In three fourth quarter possessions, the Saints (5-7) punted and then threw two interceptions. Atlanta, meanwhile, kicked two field goals, turned the ball over on a fumble and ended the game by running out the clock.
It was a microcosm of New Orleans’ season. In 9 of 12 games, New Orleans has been outgained in the final 15 minutes. In 9 of 12 games, the Saints’ have lost fourth-quarter time of possession.
All of that adds up to the team’s current predicament, where a postseason berth likely has been washed away because of late-game failures.
“It’s something we talk about and emphasize,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We’re obviously not doing a good enough job and we need to find a way to better finish these games both offensively and defensively, making the plays that we need to make to put ourselves in position to win.
“We have some of these games we could have won and should have won, had we been able to do that better. We haven’t.”
Brees, however, has been part of the problem. This season he has just a 68.5 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter. He has thrown only four touchdowns to five interceptions in the final 15 minutes of games while completing only 53.8 percent of his passes.
A season ago, he carried a 93.7 fourth-quarter rating and had thrown seven touchdowns passes to just three interceptions. He completed 63.1 percent of his passes.
And yet, he’s not the only problem. Part of the problem has been in the run game, which struggled earlier in the season. And the line isn’t giving Brees the time he’s used to having to find open receivers.
“We haven’t run the ball well in the fourth quarter. When you’re at the end and you’re just throwing the ball around and you’re playing catch-up, it puts you in tough positions sometimes,” said Strief, who added that to fully dissect the problems, it would likely take more than 20 minutes to diagram what has gone wrong.
But it’s not just on the offense. New Orleans has been outscored 78-62 in the fourth quarter this season, meaning the defense isn’t getting off the field enough.
“Defensively, it seems like in every game we’ll play well and then in the fourth quarter we’ll let a team have a long drive,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “And even though it might not end up in a touchdown, it might end in a field goal, it takes time away from our offense. And we’re not getting the turnovers in the fourth quarter and those things hurt.”
With a month left to go in the season and the Saints not controlling their own destiny, it’s only natural for those involved to look back.
While Jenkins is focused on the Giants, he also realizes a few more fourth-quarter plays and New Orleans would be fighting for seeding instead of just a berth.
“I think the only game I felt like we shouldn’t have won was the Bronco game,” Jenkins said. “We just got outplayed. But every other game we can look at a few plays, and they’re not far-fetched, if you change the outcome of those plays, we win. We’ve got to find a way to eliminate those plays. There’s no need to try to win it all in the fourth quarter. That’s the most frustrating thing, the opportunities we’ve blown as a team to get some W’s.”