For Saints, dramatic loss overshadowed continued growth

METAIRIE, La. (AP) The New Orleans Saints, a half-century-old NFL franchise whose early decades were defined largely by bumbling ineptitude, have seen their share of losses marked by unlikely plays and surreal drama.

The latest -a 25-23 loss against Denver decided by a blocked extra-point kick returned for a 2-point conversion - repeated another scenario that has become all too familiar for the Saints in the past decade.

It marked the fifth time since 2007 that the Saints (4-5) have rebounded from a start of 1-3 or worse to get to 4-4, only to lose their ninth game. The previous four times it happened - in 2007, 2012, 2014 and 2015 - the Saints never got above .500 and missed the playoffs.

But the Saints want to believe this time will turn out differently over their last seven games. Some untimely mistakes may have cost them a narrow loss to the defending champion Broncos, but New Orleans players say there remains plenty of evidence that their turnaround has not by any means been derailed.

Against the Broncos, the Saints had arguably their best game defensively this season, especially with their pass rush. They had six sacks after getting 11 combined in the first eight games. Cameron Jordan provided consistent pressure and had a team-high eight tackles, including one sack.

''I thought he played exceptionally well,'' coach Sean Payton said. ''It was probably one of his best games of the year. The pressure was significant. I think that really helped us in a lot of ways - coverage-wise and obviously with the sudden changes that we had.''

The Saints twice intercepted Trevor Siemian and twice they forced Denver to settle for field-goal attempts after reaching the red zone.

Although New Orleans had four turnovers and a slow start that yielded just three first-half points, Drew Brees was 21 of 29 for 303 yards against the NFL's top-rated pass defense. Brees was sacked just once by a defense that had 28 sacks in its previous nine games.

Brandin Cooks finished with 98 yards on three receptions. But fellow wide receiver Michael Thomas, a rookie second-round draft choice, lost two fourth-quarter fumbles, the first of which set up a tying touchdown and the second of which led to a field goal that gave the Broncos a 23-17 lead shortly before Brees and Cooks connected on a 32-yard TD that briefly tied the game at 23.

A No. 1 pick in 2014, Cooks has emerged as the Saints' leading receiver the last two seasons. He said he called Thomas, who has been the most productive rookie receiver in the NFL, on Sunday night to ''check on him.''

''He's doing good,'' Cooks said. ''Stuff happens and you learn from it. As young guys we learn to bounce back. I'm going to continue to push him and be there for him.''

The Saints have a quick turnaround as they prepare to visit NFC South rival Carolina on Thursday night.

''We lost a game that left a bad taste in our mouth,'' Jordan said. ''It's good that we get a fast chance at redemption.''

The Saints beat the Panthers 41-38 on Oct. 16 in the Superdome.

''The best thing that can happen for us is the next game coming up in four days,'' Cooks said. ''The best thing for this team is to get back to doing what we need to do, especially against a division opponent.''

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