EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Jonathan Vilma stood in front of his locker, New Orleans’ 52-27 to the New York Giants loss already in the rearview mirror.
But whereas for the past three years the Saints knew where they’d be come January, they know where they won’t be in 22 days.
“Mathematically we’re still alive? Yeah. Exactly,” Vilma said. “I don’t do all that math. I just know that 8-8 this season I seriously doubt is going to be playoff potential.”
With the season on the brink of being lost, the Saints had an opportunity Sunday to at least push the postseason cliff farther back.
New Orleans didn’t deliver. The Giants did, scoring the most points against the Saints since Green Bay scored 52 points in 2009.
New Orleans (5-8) allowed a franchise record for kickoff return yards (287), allowing the Giants to have an average starting field position at the Saints’ 49. And four turnovers, including two interceptions thrown by quarterback Drew Brees, turned into 17 Giants (8-5) points.
The missteps all but killed the Saints’ chances for picking up just their third road win of the season. And with Seattle, Washington and Dallas all winning Sunday, the Saints now have their toes hanging off the postseason cliff.
“That was an embarrassment today and it starts with me,” interim Saints head coach Joe Vitt said.
In the past, the Saints could’ve turned to veterans to help right the ship. But with only 21 members of the 2009 Super Bowl team on the roster, experience is thin, Vitt said.
“When you’re losing the way we’re losing, you’re a fragile football team,” Vitt said. “We have a lot of new guys, a lot of new faces on this football team. We have enough guys that are used to winning, that are used to doing things the right way.
“Unfortunately, right now we don’t have enough of them.”
Brees finished the game 26 of 43 for 354 yards, a touchdown and the interceptions. Since the beginning of the San Francisco game on Nov. 25, he has thrown nine interceptions and just four touchdown passes.
New Orleans native Eli Manning, meanwhile, passed for four touchdowns and 259 yards, finishing with a 99.6 rating in spite of two interceptions. Running back David Wilson had 100 yards and two scores rushing while putting up 227 yards and a score returning kickoffs.
“We came in all week knowing what this game meant,” Manning said. “We needed to get the win.”
After the defense forced New York to punt in spite of a 58-yard kickoff return to open the game, receiver Marques Colston fumbled the ball right back to the Giants after a 30-yard reception.
Saints defensive back Elbert Mack helped Colston out on the ensuing defensive series, stepping in front of Giants receiver Jerrel Jernigan, intercepting the Manning pass and returning it 73 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
It didn’t last.
New York’s David Wilson returned the kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown weaving his way into the end zone for the game-tying score.
The Giants got the ball back almost immediately. Brees’ pass to Jed Collins went for two yards, but the fullback fumbled and New York’s Linval Joseph recovered. Four plays later, Manning hit tight end Martellus Bennett for a six-yard touchdown pass and a 14-7 lead with 4:19 to go in the first quarter.
“Their offense is high-powered and they fought right back,” Manning said. “When they scored, we responded right back. We had a couple of touchdowns, a field goal and other big plays. That’s what we needed to do.”
Yet, despite the two turnovers and two big kickoff returns, the Saints only trailed 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
Garrett Hartley’s 32-yard and 25-yard field goals pulled New Orleans to within 14-13 late into the second quarter.
But after playing a nearly stifling first half, the Saints’ defense broke down in the final two minutes of the first half. Manning led New York on a nine-play, 69-yard drive in just 1 minute, 37 seconds to give the Giants a 21-13 halftime lead.
It got worse as the second half opened. Brees’ first pass went off Jimmy Graham’s fingers and into the hands of Giants safety Stevie Brown. Four plays later, Wilson scored his second touchdown of the day on a six-yard touchdown run.
Just two minutes into the second half, New Orleans found itself down 28-13.
A failed series on offense by the Saints gave the ball back to New York, which turned the possession into a 35-13 lead on Manning’s third touchdown pass of the day, this time a 25-yarder to Nicks.
The Saints took very little time off to get back within two scores thanks to a 62-yard catch by Joe Morgan. Darren Sproles capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown run and the Saints were down 35-20 midway through the third quarter.
Sproles’ second touchdown, a nine-yard catch from Brees, cut New York’s lead to just 35-27 with 1:51 to go in the third quarter.
But special teams maladies gave the Giants the momentum right back. Jernigan returned the kickoff 60 yards to New Orleans’ 25-yard line. Manning hit Cruz for a 10-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 42-27.
Lawrence Tynes’ 39-yard field goal and Wilson’s 52-yard touchdown run capped the scoring.