Lewis: Reality hits Saints hard

By TED LEWIS

Advocate sportswriter

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Sometimes, it’s not your day.

Sometimes, it’s not your season.

And if ever those two truths were evident for the Saints in 2012, they hit home Sunday.

The faith that, despite all of the offseason turmoil, this was an elite team that would be contending for another Super Bowl title faded during the 0-4 start.

And the facade that winning five out of six meant that the team has righted the ship and all it had to do was make the playoffs to strike fear in the rest of the league has disappeared over the past three weeks as the Saints lost to San Francisco, Atlanta and now the New York Giants, all division leaders with designs on ending their seasons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints will end theirs there, too, only it will be Dec. 30 against the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, there is the mathematical chance that the Saints can get into the playoffs with an 8-8 record. But the possibility of that is about as much as taking the right exit off the Jersey Turnpike.

To be sure, the Saints had a chance here Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champions.

They took a 7-0 lead on Elbert Mack’s 73-yard interception return. And it lasted all of 13 seconds, the time it took rookie David Wilson to go 97 yards with the ensuing kickoff return.

They made it 14-13 with 1:57 left in the half, but that left enough time for Eli Manning to take the Giants 69 yards and put New York up 21-13 at halftime.

After giving up two more touchdowns in the first seven minutes of the third quarter, the Saints rallied to make it an eight-point game going into the final period.

But Jerrel Jernigan went 60 yards with the last of a team-record 287 yards in kickoff returns to set up a short TD drive, and it was essentially over.

“Right now, we’re not doing what it takes to win in the National Football League,” interim coach Joe Vitt said. “It starts with me.”

Well, not entirely.

It starts with whoever made the decision that Vitt could miss the first six games and resume being the head coach without missing a beat. Or maybe that Vitt was the choice for sub for Sean Payton to begin with. For the past few weeks, the elephant in the room has been Payton’s absence.

It’s not just his attention to detail. (Do you think the halftime debacle last week in Atlanta would have happened if Payton had been on the sideline?) It’s lack of motivation as well. Giants coach Tom Coughlin and his players showed plenty of it last week, even though they are leading their division. The Saints, at least publicly, did not.

On Sunday, Vitt finally referenced the responsibility of the players doing the right things at the right time.

Too bad Payton, Vitt, Gregg Williams and everyone else connected with the bounty situation didn’t do that earlier.

Because this franchise’s window to repeat the triumphs of 2009 has closed.