Rabalais: Road woes show Saints’ shortcomings

New Orleans Saints fans sits in the stands during the second quarter of an NFL football game between the St. Louis Rams and the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) Show caption
New Orleans Saints fans sits in the stands during the second quarter of an NFL football game between the St. Louis Rams and the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

ST. LOUIS — Mark the time. Circle the date on your calendar. Pour enough of your favorite adult libation for your Saints sorrows and football-fueled frustrations to drown in.

The Saints-Rams game ended at 6:33 p.m. Central Standard Time on Sunday.

That’s the time and date the Saints’ 2013 season probably ended as well.

Oh yes, there are still games to play next week at Carolina and at home against Tampa Bay. Important games. And New Orleans is almost certain to get into the playoffs.

But when this season began — heck, when the Saints went into that showdown three weeks ago at Seattle sporting a 9-2 record — New Orleans had loftier aspirations than just getting into the playoffs.

If the Saints don’t win next week at Carolina, New Orleans may go into the postseason as a wild-card team. And wild-card teams play on the road. And going on the road has been like a mission to a forbidden planet with no air for the Saints to breathe most of this season.

You need an oxygen tank for trips like that. Sunday, New Orleans just tanked in a 27-16 defeat that ranks as the most disheartening and discouraging and disillusioning the Saints have had in this comeback tour of a season.

The Saints’ 34-7 drubbing at Seattle was one thing. The Saints got overwhelmed by a very good team. You can argue that 12-2 Seattle — which did what good teams are supposed to do Sunday and dominated the troubled New York Giants 23-0 on the road — is the NFL’s best team and will get little backtalk outside of Denver.

But these were the Rams, not the Seahawks. The Rams, who got outscored by a combined 53-23 the past two weeks. The Rams, who were playing without top quarterback Sam Bradford and star wide receiver/kick returner Tavon Austin. The Rams, who had nothing to play for except to send the Saints’ lofty aspirations spinning down one of the icy streets surrounding the Edward Jones Dome.

Well, mission accomplished. The last time I saw this kind of wreckage in back-to-back road trips was the last two times I covered the Daytona 500.

One game can be an anomaly. Seattle is by far the favorite to win the NFC.

Two games is a trend. A red light flashing, sirens wailing, cleaning-the-stores-out-of-batteries-and-bottled-water trend.

During that Hindenburg of a first quarter for the Saints, I thought I was having a flashback to a 1970s Rams-Saints game. I half-expected to see Lawrence McCutcheon running and Pat Haden throwing and Jack Youngblood tackling the hapless Saints into submission like the old days.

“I saw enough,” Saints coach Sean Payton said grimly. “I saw enough — period.”

Payton was referring specifically to the play of left tackle Charles Brown, whose hands-to-the-face penalty just before halftime erased a desperately needed Drew Brees to Lance Moore touchdown pass. That led to a partially blocked field goal by former LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers and a chasm-like 24-3 halftime deficit that ballooned to 27-3 before the Saints mounted an inadequate comeback.

John F. Kennedy once said defeat is an orphan, but this one has a leafy family tree.

It is too much to point the finger just at Brown, though Lucy pulling a football away from another even more famous Charlie Brown comes to mind. It’s unfair to just pin the loss on kicker Garrett Hartley, who has wavered on falling to waiver-wire status much of the season.

Save something pointy for the usually brilliant Brees, whose two interceptions on the Saints’ first two possessions were like an ominous note from an organ. Point to a defense that had 43 sacks coming in but couldn’t lay a glove on the usually horizontal Kellen Clemens. (He’d been sacked 18 times in his previous six games as Bradford’s body double.)

And raise your hands and shrug your shoulders at an entire Saints team that simply didn’t play with urgency and focus in a game with so much at stake and so much to gain. And lose.

“We did all the things a poor team does to keep them from winning,” Payton said.

The Saints aren’t a poor team. Only Seattle, Denver and Kansas City (the latter two both 11-3) have better records than New Orleans.

But perhaps we were wrong to label the Saints as an elite team as well. Brees’ dazzling aerial stunts and New Orleans’ seemingly miraculous defensive improvement under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan (who had a pit stop as the Rams’ defensive coordinator during the offseason) have covered up sins that, now revealed, make you doubt the Saints are built to withstand the arduous journey to Super Bowl XLVIII.

That’s another road game. And the road has been too rocky for the Saints to expect a championship at the end of it.