Saints' offense disappears, playoff hopes fade along with it

METAIRIE, La. (AP) The mistake-prone New Orleans Saints can add a suddenly slumping offense to the list of reasons they will likely miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year.

Drew Brees threw three interceptions for the second straight week in a 16-11 loss Sunday at Tampa Bay while receiving little help from his offensive teammates, leaving the Saints (5-8) grappling Monday with the frustration of another lost season. New Orleans, which has not been above .500 since 2013, trails the Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South by three games with three weeks left in the regular season.

By the time the Saints kick off against Arizona in a late-afternoon game on Sunday, they could be eliminated from the NFC wild card picture. And a victory by either the Bucs or the Falcons on Sunday would end their division title hopes as well.

The Saints face this disappointing scenario despite their formerly leaky defense holding Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to no rushing or passing touchdowns for the first time in his college or professional career. New Orleans limited the Bucs to 270 yards without starting safety Kenny Vaccaro, who began serving a four-game suspension for using the banned substance Adderall.

''It's been the same story all season long,'' said veteran safety Roman Harper, who started and played 51 snaps in place of Vaccaro. ''When one unit plays well, we have another unit that does not. We haven't been able to put a complete game together with all three units playing well. If we did that, we probably would have been pretty good.''

For the last two weeks, the primary issue has been an offense that still ranks No. 1 in the NFL in yards but has slowed dramatically.

Brees has gone two straight games without a touchdown pass for only the second time in his 11 years with New Orleans. The Saints have scored one touchdown in that span, losing at home to Detroit 26-13 before managing three field goals and a safety against Tampa Bay.

The Bucs limited the Saints to 46 rushing yards, their second lowest total of the season. Brees, sacked once and pressured several times, now leads the NFC in interceptions with 14.

''We're going to turn the ball over if we have to throw it an 80-percent clip,'' offensive tackle Zach Strief said. ''This game is not as complicated as we would like to make it sound. When you become one-dimensional, it's tough to protect the quarterback, and when you're relying on him to make all the plays and you don't give him time, you're going to struggle.''

The errors came one after the other. With the Saints trailing 13-5 late in the second quarter, Brees overthrew open receiver Brandin Cooks on a deep pass in the end zone. After getting a first down inside the Tampa Bay 1 on the same drive, the Saints self-destructed just before halftime.

A false start penalty on tackle Tony Hills - one of six for the offense on a day the Saints were penalized 13 times for 104 yards - moved the ball back to the 6. Running back Travaris Cadet dropped a pass with a clear path to the end zone. Brees tripped on guard Jahri Evans' foot and was sacked, forcing the Saints to kick a field goal.

In the third quarter, Cooks couldn't hang on to a third-down pass in the end zone that would have been a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, New Orleans kicked another field goal to cut the deficit to 13-11.

''It's not one breakdown specifically,'' coach Sean Payton said. ''We've got to look how we as coaches can improve the efficiency, and that starts with maybe the overall amount (of information) that we're giving them.''

The special teams gaffe and defensive problems that plagued the Saints early in the year have given way to offensive inefficiency and massive frustration. New Orleans has outgained and outscored its opponents for the year with almost nothing to show for it.

''We have to be real honest and look in the mirror,'' Strief said. ''We have to make changes to the problems that have plagued us.''

---

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.