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Was it too late for the Saints to realize their potential in Week 17?

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Now that the New Orleans Saints have avoided the dreaded fate of playing meaningless late-season football, all they can do is try to replicate their most recent performance — easily among their best during an up-and-down 2023 campaign — and hope that fortune favors them.

The Saints demonstrated during their 23-13 victory at Tampa Bay on Sunday that they’re capable of seizing control of a game against a playoff-contending rival, overcoming injuries and winning convincingly with their season on the line.

“Everything was clicking; everything worked out,” tight end Juwan Johnson said. “The defense was playing lights out and the offense was playing really well. Just from the first drive, we were hitting on all cylinders.”

New Orleans found the end zone on its opening drive and remained in front, building a 20-point third-quarter lead that proved too much for the NFC South-leading Buccaneers to overcome.

The Saints’ defense produced four Tampa Bay turnovers. New Orleans’ offense never coughed up the ball.

Derek Carr, whose bouts of inconsistency have gotten him booed at times, was efficient and effective. He completed 24 of 32 passes with two touchdowns.

Whether one of New Orleans’ best and most complete performances came a little too late will be known soon enough.

The Saints (8-8) pulled even with the Buccaneers (8-8) in the win-loss column, but Tampa Bay holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its superior record against common opponents.

Still, the Saints remain alive in both the NFC South and wild-card races, even if winning this weekend is not enough by itself to assure New Orleans a postseason berth.

“We’re guaranteed one more opportunity to go and prove it a little bit more,” coach Dennis Allen said. “That’s what we’re going to focus on.”

WHAT’S WORKING

New Orleans’ pass defense has ranked in the top 10 virtually all season and is currently ninth. The Saints also rank fifth in interceptions per pass attempt (3.1%) after Alontae Taylor and Jonathan Abram each picked off Baker Mayfield.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The defense’s approach to protecting late leads has caused consternation.

After stifling Mayfield and the Tampa Bay offense with aggressive, opportunistic play for three quarters, New Orleans allowed touchdown passes of 22 and 47 yards in the last eight minutes. The Saints also gave up another 54-yard reception in the fourth quarter that might have been more costly if Trey Palmer hadn’t fumbled the ball away as he fell to the ground without being touched.

“We’ve got to fix that because that’s inexcusable to let the ball go over your head,” said Allen, who oversees the defense. “When you get in those situations, you’ve been playing well for such a long time doing it one way, don’t change how you’re playing.”

STOCK UP

Johnson’s production had fallen below expectations for much of this season, but at Tampa Bay, the 27-year-old, fourth-year pro had eight catches for 90 yards and a touchdown. Abram had his best game this season with five tackles, one interception, a pass defended and a forced fumble.

STOCK DOWN

Chris Olave, who leads the Saints with 87 catches for 1,067 yards, experienced a dip in production at Tampa Bay, finishing with three catches for 26 yards.

INJURIES

Top running back Alvin Kamara has a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the second half at Tampa Bay. Linebacker Nephi Sewell was carted off with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. Offensive tackle Landon Young also left with a knee injury.

KEY NUMBER

1 — The number of New Orleans’ opening offensive series that have ended in a touchdown this season after the Saints got in the end zone on their first possession at Tampa Bay.

NEXT STEPS

The Saints close out the regular season at home against Atlanta. If New Orleans wins, it needs a loss by Tampa Bay to win the NFC South, or it needs losses by both Seattle and Green Bay to capture the NFC’s last wild-card playoff spot.

 

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