Brian Allee-Walsh

New Orleans Saints defense has egg on its face going into NFL playoffs

New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52) celebrates with teammates including middle linebacker Manti Te'o (51), cornerback Ken Crawley (20), defensive back Rafael Bush (25) and defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) after Robertson intercepted a pass by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston on Sunday in Tampa, Florida.
New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52) celebrates with teammates including middle linebacker Manti Te'o (51), cornerback Ken Crawley (20), defensive back Rafael Bush (25) and defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) after Robertson intercepted a pass by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston on Sunday in Tampa, Florida. AP

Welcome to the NFL’s “Second Season,” when the slate is wiped clean for the 12 playoff teams that remain alive and kicking on the road to Super Bowl LII.

The dozen survivors are all 0-0, including the NFC South-champion New Orleans Saints.

That said, teams want to be playing their best football at this time of year and the Saints clearly are not heading into Sunday’s opening-round game against the Carolina Panthers at 3:40 p.m. (Fox) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Yes, the Saints thumped the Panthers in both meetings this season — 34-13 at Carolina in Week 3 and 31-21 in New Orleans in Week 13.

But the Saints are 3-3 in their last six games — 3-0 at home with double-digit wins against the Panthers (31-21), New York Jets (31-19) and Atlanta (23-13) and 0-3 on the road with losses at the LA Rams (26-20), Atlanta (20-17) and the most disturbing one of all Sunday against Tampa Bay (31-24).

These are not the 2009 Saints who defied all odds by becoming the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl after losing its last three games of the regular season. Remember? The ’09 Saints sprinted out to a 13-0 record, then stumbled against Dallas and Tampa Bay at home and at Carolina, when coach Sean Payton scratched a healthy Drew Brees for backup quarterback Mark Brunell in a meaningless regular-season finale.

The ’09 Saints owned a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a 13-3 record.

As I said the 2017 Saints are not the ’09 Saints.

And I mean that in a good way, especially on defense.

Consider these three meaningful defensive statistics — yards per game (YPG), points per game (PPG) and turnover differential:

▪  ’09 — 357.8 YPG (No. 25), 21.3 PPG (No. 20), +11 TO differential (No. 3 — 39 takeaways/28 giveaways)

▪  ’17 — 336.5 YPG (No. 17), 20.4 PPG (No. 10), +7 TO differential (No. T9 — 25 takeaways/18 giveaways)

Statistically speaking, the ’17 Saints put up better numbers in terms of yards and points allowed than the ’09 Saints, which is remarkable when one considers Dennis Allen’s defensive unit got off to a rocky start by yielding 65 points and 1,025 yards in season-opening losses against Minnesota and New England.

That defensive about-face helped propel the Saints to their first division championship since 2011 and first playoff appearance since 2013.

Which is why what happened on the Saints’ final defensive stand of the regular season makes me wonder if Payton’s team has what it takes to win a second Lombardi Trophy.

With a chance to preserve a 24-23 lead Sunday against the Buccaneers and wrap up the NFC South championship, the Saints defense fell on its collective face. Bucs’ quarterback Jameis Winston — who had thrown three earlier INTs — drove the Bucs 95 yards in 11 plays and scored the winning points on a 39-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin with nine seconds remaining.

That play was made possible after Winston converted on fourth-and-10 from the Bucs 5-yard line with a 12-yard completion to wide open tight end Cameron Brate in the middle of passive zone coverage.

I’m a firm believer that defense wins championships.

It’s now or never time in the NFL.

The injury-depleted Saints defense won’t get a second chance in the “Second Season.”

Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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