Also-ran Rams drop Saints in shocking loss

ST. LOUIS — Countless times last week, as they prepared to visit the Rams on Sunday, Saints players stressed the importance of avoiding a repeat of the loss New Orleans experienced at the Edward Jones Dome in 2011 against an 0-6 St. Louis team.

In a sense, they accomplished that. Instead of heading into halftime staring at a 17-point deficit like they did two seasons ago, the Saints finished the first half down by 21 for only the third time since 2006 and the first time since 2007.

Otherwise, little was different for the Saints in a disheartening 27-16 setback against a Rams team that, to be fair, was better than the 2011 version but nonetheless came into the game already having secured the franchise’s 10th consecutive non-winning season.

The Saints (10-4) would’ve clinched a playoff berth with a win, and none of the various scenarios that would’ve gotten New Orleans into the postseason Sunday came to fruition. Now, to win the NFC South and get a first-round bye in the playoffs, New Orleans must travel to Carolina on Sunday and beat the 10-4 Panthers, who are 6-1 at home. Or if they lose to Carolina, they must beat Tampa Bay (4-10) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 29 and Carolina must lose at Atlanta (4-10) that same day.

It had been established that the Saints on the road are nothing like the team they are at the Superdome, where they’re unbeaten this year. Yet Sunday seemed to represent a viable opportunity for the Saints to improve their road record to 4-3 and win the second of their final five away outings: The game was indoors, in front of a quiet crowd in a stadium at two-thirds capacity.

They didn’t capitalize. As has been the case virtually all year, the Saints did not approach the 33 or so points they average at the Superdome.

New Orleans did not resemble the outfit that has been holding opponents to 267.4 yards and 15.4 points per game at home.

“Much has been written about how we play at home (and) ... on the road, but that’s where it is right now, this season,” coach Sean Payton said. “How we played today was unacceptable, and that’s on me.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw interceptions on his first and sixth passes of the game, which the Rams translated into a 14-0 lead with 4:49 left in the first quarter. He turned the ball over a third time in the second half on a sack by Robert Quinn, who forced a fumble and recovered it.

“You want to talk about waking the whole place up — that did it,” Brees said of his picks. “We know ... that’s a recipe for disaster — and sure enough, it was.”

Quinn tallied two sacks of Brees and now leads the NFL with 15. He hit Brees as the quarterback threw on New Orleans’ first play from scrimmage, resulting in an interception by Rams safety T.J. McDonald.

St. Louis landed four sacks of Brees, the fourth game this year he has been dropped behind the line of scrimmage that many times. After the game, he had an ice pack on his throwing hand.

After Quinn’s sack-fumble, Payton benched left tackle Charles Brown. He moved right tackle Zach Strief to that spot and put Bryce Harris in Strief’s spot.

Brown in the second quarter negated an 8-yard TD catch by Lance Moore with an illegal-use-of-hands penalty. Kicker Garrett Hartley subsequently tried a 36-yard field goal, but it was blocked by defensive tackle Michael Brockers with 2 seconds left in the half, giving St. Louis a 24-3 halftime lead.

Brees was 39-of-56 passing for 393 yards. He stretched the ball over the goal line from 1 yard to make it 27-9 in the fourth quarter (the Saints failed on the two-point attempt), and he threw a 5-yard TD to Marques Colston that made it 27-16 with 3:07 left.

The Saints recovered an onside kick after Colston’s score, but Hartley missed a 26-yard field goal at the end of the drive with 1:54 left. Hartley converted a 45-yard kick that temporarily made it 17-3 in the second quarter, but he is 22-of-30 on field goals this year — 73.3 percent, among the lowest marks in the league.

Hartley’s miscues were far from the Saints’ only problems. New Orleans posted its third-worst rushing effort of the year, managing only 61 yards on 20 attempts.

A Rams rushing attack that was averaging 140 yards in its previous nine contests piled up 144 against the Saints. All but 12 were from running back Zac Stacy, who punched in a TD on a career-long 40-yard run in the second quarter.

Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens (14-of-20 for 158 yards) threw two TD passes for only the second time in his eight-year career. The first was a 31-yard TD off a screen pass to seldom-used tight end Cory Harkey, who evaded tackles by safety Malcolm Jenkins at the 20 and cornerbacks Corey White and Keenan Lewis at the 10. McDonald’s pick set up that score.

Soon after, working from the Rams’ 10, Brees fired a pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, who was blanketed by three Rams defenders. St. Louis cornerback Trumaine Johnson snagged the throw in the end zone and ran it back to the Rams’ 7. The turnover ended a league-best streak of 166 passes in the red zone that had not been intercepted for Brees.

After nine plays and unnecessary roughness penalties on the Saints’ Curtis Lofton as well as Jenkins, tight end Lance Kendricks slipped behind Saints linebacker Will Herring and caught a 4-yard TD.

Immediately after Kendricks’ TD, the Rams recovered an onside kick and tacked on a field goal. Even worse, the Saints failed to register a sack.

Jenkins said the loss wasn’t “the end of the world” because the division title and a run in the postseason remain possibilities. But he admitted they’d come up short on one of those goals — if not both — with another outing like Sunday’s.

“We tried to play hard,” he said. “We just did dumb things early that killed our momentum.”