ST. LOUIS — The Saints entered Sunday’s game at the Edward Jones Dome promising they had learned their lesson from an embarrassing loss to the Rams two years earlier.
They were wrong.
New Orleans returned to what is quickly becoming its house of horrors and turned in a performance eerily similar to that loss in 2011, playing mistake-prone football in losing 27-16.
Now, with two weeks to play, the Saints (10-4) are in a precarious position. Win in Carolina next week and they secure the No. 2 seed. Lose in Charlotte and they’ll need some help in getting the playoff-bye and a home game.
If they play anything like they did Sunday in St. Louis, the latter scenario may be their fate.
New Orleans turned the ball over three times, committed seven penalties for more than 70 yards and gave up touchdown plays of 31 and 40 yards in the first half.
Drew Brees was involved in all three giveaways. He was intercepted twice in the first quarter and had the ball stripped from his grasp early in the third. He was sacked four times and finished 39 of 56 passing for 393 yards.
The Saints didn’t have problems moving the ball, gaining more than 375 yards. Rather, mistakes cost New Orleans three times in scoring position, including an interception, a penalty that canceled out a touchdown pass and a blocked kick.
Meanwhile, the Saints’ defense couldn’t figure out St. Louis’ offense in the opening half, giving up 231 yards and 24 points. But they held the Rams in check in the second half and gave the offense a chance.
But what happened early all but made the second-half stops moot.
In five career games against the Rams prior to Sunday, Brees had thrown two interceptions in each game and he was halfway there on New Orleans’ first play.
New Orleans motioned tight end Jimmy Graham away from left tackle Charles Brown and St. Louis’ prolific end Robert Quinn, who took advantage, bulling into the pocket and pressuring Brees.
With no room to pass, Brees didn’t step into the throw and the ball came up short of the intended receiver, an easy interception for T.J. McDonald. One play later, Clemens hit tight end Cory Harkey for a 31-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
The Saints appeared to be driving towards a game-tying touchdown, getting to St. Louis’ 10-yard line. But on second-and-goal, Brees changed plays at the line, rolled right and lofted a pass that appeared meant only for the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson.
Instead of a tie game, the Rams took over at their own 7. Taking advantage of two personal fouls by New Orleans, St. Louis drive 93 yards and pushed New Orleans’ deficit to 14-0 on a Clemens to Lance Kendricks touchdown pass.
St. Louis wasn’t done surprising the Saints. The Rams went for an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, recovering it at New Orleans’ 47 when Ramon Humber couldn’t grab the ball. Six plays later, Greg Zuerlein’s 31-yard field go put New Orleans in a 17-0 hole.
A quarter into the game, the Saints had to be wondering how everything got off track so quickly.
New Orleans began its climb back into the game with an eight-play drive that ended in a 45-yard Garrett Hartley field goal. With more than 10 minutes to go in the first half, the Saints’ deficit was down to 17-3.
The climb back was brief.
After trading punts, the Rams extended their lead. First, Corey White fell down on third-and-five and Clemens hit Chris Givens for a 31-yard completion. Two plays later, New Orleans linebacker Parys Haralson didn’t wrap up on Stacy and 40 yards later, the running back pushed the Saints deficit to 24-3 with 4:10 to go in the opening half.
New Orleans thought it had pulled to within two touchdowns on a touchdown pass Lance Moore with 15 seconds go play in the half, but an illegal hands to the face penalty on Charles Brown nullified the score. Marques Colston couldn’t corral a pass from Brees in the end zone and then Hartley’s 36-yard field goal was blocked by Michael Brockers and the Saints went into halftime down 21 points.
New Orleans was driving in the third quarter to get back into the game, but on third down, Quinn stripped Brees and recovered the fumble, ending the threat.
The Rams eventually pushed the lead to 27-3 late in the third on Zuerlein’s 35-yards field goal.
Brees’ one-yard touchdown lunge and his five-yard touchdown pass to Colston with 3:07 to play cut the deficit to 27-16.
With less than two minutes to play, Hartley trotted on the field for a kick that could have made it a one-possession game, but he booted it left.