Opinion: After two-game slide, Saints must regain health, mojo to live up to Super Bowl aspirations

Weighed in the balance against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints were found wanting.

A squad with Super Bowl aspirations of their own, the Saints welcomed back future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees from a four-game injury absence, overcame a slow start to take a third quarter lead, fell behind again before rallying late only to fall short, 32-29.  

Now owners of an 10-4 record with just two games left, the Saints stand in a peculiar position. Losers of two straight (something that hasn’t happened since Weeks 1 and 2 of the 2017 season), they have drifted further away from their goal of securing the top seed in the NFC with the postseason approaching.  

So, the question is who are the Saints? The squad that has ranked among the best in the NFC for nearly the entire season? Or a team that once boasted great promise only to fall prey to injuries, age and fatigue late in the year?

On one hand, the Saints look like The Can’t Get Rights. 

Brees returned from 11 fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. But on the same day, their top wide receiver, Michael Thomas went on injured reserve with an ankle injury (a move that ends his regular season). And fellow wideout Tre'Quan Smith left the game versus the Chiefs with an ankle injury of his own. 

The Saints had answers for Kansas City, but not nearly enough. The final score indicated a close matchup. But never was there a point where it didn’t feel like the Chiefs weren't in control, like Patrick Mahomes wasn’t going to orchestrate a game-clinching drive.

But on the other hand, the Saints can take consolation in the fact that despite the factors working against them — the injuries, Brees’ rust, an offense that converted one of only 11 third downs, possessed the ball for roughly 18 minutes compared to Kansas City’s 41, defensive inconsistencies that allowed the Chiefs to run an astounding 92 offensive plays — they still kept swinging against the champs. The Saints still have one of the greatest coach and quarterback duos the game has seen. And, even if wrestling the No. 1 spot away from Green Bay winds up being impossible, the Saints still sit in prime position to host at least one playoff game before potentially having to go into foreign territory. 

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Drew Brees threw for 234 yards and 3 TDs, but also had an interception in Sunday's loss to the Chiefs. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports)

The Saints must rediscover their mojo, however.

But this is the point on the calendar when NFL teams want to make their final pushes for the playoffs. This is when they want to be playing their best football so they can build momentum that they hope can power them toward a deep postseason run.

That wasn’t the case on Sunday for New Orleans, however. And when you’re facing a team as potent as the Chiefs, you’ll pay the price for bringing anything less than your "A" game. 

Early struggles from Brees made sense. He hadn’t played in more than a month. But the feeble efforts on third downs, the lopsided time of possession, and 10 penalties (tying a season high) for 93 yards can’t happen. 

“The first four drives were certainly not what we wanted. Four three-and-outs,” Brees said. “We didn’t really find our rhythm until the second quarter and the fourth quarter. … It wasn’t really efficient in the passing game today. I think maybe I was forcing some things downfield, or we had some miscues. … They did a great job, but we definitely could’ve been more efficient.” 

Injuries certainly played a role in the third down struggles. Thomas’ absence and Smith’s departure seemingly put too much pressure on Emmanuel Sanders, who had four catches for 76 yards, including a 51-yarder that set up a touchdown. Too often, New Orleans' receivers struggled to win their matchups, and the lack of separation translated into low-percentage throws by Brees.

The Saints’ defense didn’t play poorly. They executed their game plan of taking away the big play by playing two safeties downfield, forcing Mahomes and the Chiefs to settle for short throws. 

The only problem was that meant one less man to help stop the run, and once Kansas City figured this out, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Le’Veon Bell and Mahomes gashed them for 179 rushing yards. And when opting to pass, Mahomes simply picked his opponents apart with short- to mid-range throws. Kansas City racked up 34 first downs to New Orleans’ 15. The extended drives appeared to take a toll on the New Orleans defenders, and when the Chiefs needed to slam the door shut with a time-consuming drive, Mahomes of course delivered, connecting with tight end Travis Kelce to move the chains and then run out the clock. 

“He’s just a legendary quarterback,” Saints linebacker Kwon Alexander conceded. “He’s going to make plays, but you’ve got to stop him. We’ve got to get it done. … I feel like we played hard, but we’ve got to start finishing.”

Or, perhaps Alexander should have said, "Get back to finishing." All season long, this defense has ranked among the best in the league when it comes to getting stops in crucial down and distance situations. 

Sunday, the necessary consistency eluded them.

The Saints have two games remaining: Christmas Day against the Vikings, who have dramatically regressed after eliminating New Orleans in the playoffs last year, and divisional opponent Carolina. 

New Orleans must capitalize on the favorable slate. 

If they can finish off the regular season on a strong note, and then get reinforcements back by the start of the postseason, then their mission of contending for one final Super Bowl before Brees retires would seem realistic. Fortunately for the Saints, the NFC remains wide open. There’s talent at the top, but very little separation between teams. And on paper, New Orleans remains one of the elite in the conference.

The Saints have proved that even on their worst days, they remain formidable. But the question is whether or not they can get healthy and recalibrated in time to make the push for that coveted Lombardi Trophy.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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