Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
TAMPA, Fla. – Jonathan Vilma doesn’t subscribe to the theory that six games in is still early in the NFL season.
Not when he remembers the home loss to the Falcons in Week 3 of the 2010 season.
Not when he remembers the Arizona defeat two games later.
The Saints eventually lost out to Atlanta for the division and a higher seed and were shipped west to Seattle, where they lost in the wild card round of the NFC playoffs.
They were on the road instead of in the Superdome and Sunday, Vilma could see the future after the Saints lost to Tampa Bay 26-20, a game they should have won.
Every game counts and when you’re playing a division opponent coming off of a 45-point loss a week prior, you can count this as an opportunity squandered.
Vilma knows this as well as anyone else in the locker room.
“We look at last year,” Vilma said with a quiet but upset tone as he dressed in the locker room Sunday. “We lost at home to Atlanta last year and they went on a hot streak. We look at games like that. Losing to Arizona early last year in the season. You take a couple of those losses, turn them into wins and we could easily have been fighting for the one-see last year. That’s how we look at it.”
In a way, this was in the works for a few weeks – fourth-quarter comebacks against both Houston and Carolina being needed just to get to 4-1 heading into the Tampa Bay game.
Yes, the Saints put themselves in a position to win despite losing their head coach during the game and despite losing the turnover battle by four.
That doesn’t matter, not when the difference between a home playoff game and a road postseason trek could come down to a fourth-and-two turnover in Week 6.
This was a win the Saints couldn’t afford to let get away.
New Orleans could have taken a two-game lead in the division.
Instead, Tampa Bay owns the lead thanks to tiebreakers, with wins coming over both New Orleans and Atlanta.
On Sunday, you could possibly blame the lack of rhythm on losing Sean Payton to a freak injury less than five minutes into the game.
But no player said that was a factor, all, in fact, saying it helped bring the team together.
The biggest number from Sunday is four – that is, the turnover differential for New Orleans.
That’s what Vilma talked about as the difference in the game.
And that’s why, like last season, against Atlanta and at Arizona, the Saints felt like they gave a game away.
“Our expectations are high and we expect to win and we didn’t get that done today,” Vilma said.
The second weekend in January might just have changed three months prior because of it.