NEW ORLEANS — In their home preseason opener Friday night, the New Orleans Saints looked like a weary football team that was coming off its final week of training camp.
Starting slowly on both offense and defense, the Saints fell behind 17-3 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second quarter before quarterbacks Drew Brees and Chase Daniel rallied them back for a 24-20 lead in the final two minutes.
But the Jaguars responded with a 74-yard drive that was capped by Jordan Palmer’s 11-yard game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Elliott with 13 seconds to play for a 27-24 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints (1-2) had to feel fortunate they even had a chance to win after some early hiccups on both sides of the ball — including poor tackling — helped the Jaguars (2-0) get out to a big lead in the second period.
The Saints also had 12 penalties for 132 yards, including two big ones on the Jaguars’ game-winning drive.
Two Blaine Gabbert touchdown passes and a 36-yard Josh Scobee field goal, which came after Brees lost the ball while being sacked, helped the Jaguars to their commanding lead.
But Brees, seeing his most extensive action of the preseason in playing until late in the first half, got his team back into the game with an 85-yard TD drive that cut the deficit to 17-10 just before the end of the first half.
Daniel took over after that drive and directed the Saints to a pair of second-half touchdowns that helped them briefly overtake the Jaguars.
His 24-yard touchdown pass to running back Travaris Cadet with 1:53 remaining in the game gave the Saints the lead for the first time.
But the defense couldn’t get off the field and close out the Jaguars.
Pass interference calls against rookie defensive backs Jose Gumbs and Cord Parks kept the Jaguars’ final drive alive and Palmer, under a heavy pass rush on a last-gasp pass, converted on fourth-and-goal from the 11.
The Saints thought they had clinched the win when Palmer’s pass on fourth-and-11 from the Jaguars’ 37 fell incomplete, but Gumbs was called for a 31-yard interference penalty with 47 seconds left.
Three plays later, Jaguars wide receiver Chastin West fell after he and Parks got their legs tangled up on a deep pass down the right sideline, which resulted in a 30-yard penalty that put the ball at the Saints 6.
Then, with a Saints defender bearing down on him, Palmer threw up a floater that Elliott pulled in for the score to give the Jaguars the win.
While the Saints managed to rally, it was anything but encouraging early when the Jaguars took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in nine plays to a 16-yard TD from Gabbert to rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
The drive was aided by some shoddy tackling by the Saints, including one on Blackmon’s touchdown catch by cornerback Marquis Johnson.
Johnson, however, wasn’t the only one.
“We were disappointed in the way the defense tackled to start this game,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “I think there is a cause and effect to everything.
“I’m not going to mask it, the tackling in the first half was disappointing,” he said. “I’m not going to make any excuses for our tackling, we’ve got to get better at it — and we will.”
The Saints came back with a solid drive of their own although it eventually stalled and Garrett Hartley had to come in for a 37-yard field goal to make it 7-3.
After being forced to punt, the Jaguars went 66 yards in 14 plays to a 15-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert to a wide-open tight end Colin Cloherty with 9:00 to play in the second quarter.
Once again, missed tackles helped the Jaguars move down the field.
“I don’t know what to attribute that to,” strongside linebacker Scott Shanle said when asked about the missed tackles. “Sometimes the grind of training camp can take a hold of guys.
“But you never want to lose fundamentals. It’s something we can work on and we have time to work on them.”
On the first play from scrimmage after the kickoff, Brees was sacked by defensive end Jeremy Mincey and the ball squirted free with defensive tackle Terrance Knighton falling on the ball.
The Saints stopped the Jaguars, however, on three plays and Scobee came in to hit a 36-yard field goal to increase the lead to 17-3.
In his final series, Brees connected on the final six passes of the drive for 74 yards, hitting Devery Henderson for an 8-yard TD pass, which Henderson cradled to his body while falling out of bounds.
In the second half, Daniel threw a 53-yard TD pass to wide receiver Joe Morgan, who got behind a confused Jaguars’ secondary to tie the game at 17-17, before Scobee connected on a 47-yard field goal with 1:40 to play in the third quarter to give his team a 20-17 edge going into the final period.
Daniel, who completed 16 of 21 attempts for 185 yards, put his team ahead with a five-play, 62-yard drive that ended with Cadet catching a pass over the middle and racing to the end zone.
While the end was disappointing, the Saints weren’t happy about the way they started the game.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to get in a rhythm in the preseason,” said Brees, who was 10-of-13 for 133 yards. “You’re not game-planning and things don’t always go as planned and you wind up making some mistakes because you’re mixing and matching personnel.
“But that last drive felt like us. We had a couple of plays in the passing game and the tempo was good and we got a few guys involved.”