Although coach Sean Payton put a positive spin on the Saints’ heartbreaking 17-13 loss at Carolina on Sunday, it was impossible to deny the negative impact.
Playoff implications notwithstanding, New Orleans lost rookie starting safety Kenny Vaccaro for the rest of the year. Payton said in a conference call Monday morning that Vaccaro had a fractured left ankle and will have surgery on it Tuesday in Charlotte, making him unavailable for the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay and beyond if the Saints reach the postseason.
Vaccaro, third on the team with 79 tackles, left Sunday’s game late in the first quarter. He flew back to New Orleans with the team but will return to Charlotte to be operated on by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Anderson.
Payton compared the injury to one that occurred to offensive tackle Bryce Harris last season. Harris was hurt against San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2012, and after having surgery, was not cleared to return until a week before the start of OTAs this spring.
“It’s a fracture in the ankle,” Payton said. “It’s fairly clean. If any of you had a chance to see how the foot was sitting, you could tell something was wrong.”
Vaccaro, a big hitter whom the Saints drafted 15th in the first round in April, started 14 of 15 games, sitting out against San Francisco with a concussion. He had a season-high 10 tackles against Seattle with a forced fumble, and he made his only interception against Arizona.
“That’s a tough loss to us,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He’s definitely a big part of what we do on defense. But anytime someone’s gotten injured this year, we’ve had guys fill in and play well. So I think we’ll be all right. But he obviously produces a lot on our defense. We’ll move guys around and bring guys in who I’m sure will do a great job.”
Veteran safety Roman Harper received more playing time in Vaccaro’s absence. On Carolina’s winning touchdown drive in the final minute, Harper trailed receiver Ted Ginn Jr. on a 37-yard catch-and-run to the New Orleans 28.
Vaccaro is the second starting defensive back the Saints have lost for the season. Cornerback Jabari Greer tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against San Francisco on Nov. 17 and was placed on injured reserve.
Greer’s replacement, Corey White, gave up the winning touchdown against Carolina on a 14-yard catch by Domenik Hixon.
For the Saints, the difference between winning and losing was dramatic.
If New Orleans had held on in the final minute against Carolina, it could have reached the NFC Championship Game with only one playoff win at home, where it has not lost all season.
Unless Atlanta upsets Carolina on Sunday, the Saints will have to win twice on the road — where they never have won in postseason franchise history — to make the championship game.
And that’s the best-case scenario. If New Orleans loses at home to Tampa Bay on Sunday and Arizona beats San Francisco at home, the Saints won’t even make the playoffs.
“Coach can speak for how he feels, but I wasn’t encouraged,” wide receiver Lance Moore said Monday. “I was disappointed, I was upset, I felt like we let one go. I would be almost positive that most players would say the same thing.
“It’s extremely frustrating. It’s not like we went in there and laid an egg and got beat 38 to nothing.
“But losing the way that we did, it just stings, and it definitely hurts a little bit more.”
Moore had only one reception in another tough road outing for the offense before he grabbed two in a row on the Saints’ unsuccessful, desperation drive in the final seconds.
New Orleans has scored 17 points or fewer in its past four games away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, winning only one of them.
The Panthers sacked Brees six times, tied for the most in his eight years with the Saints. He also threw two interceptions.
“Our best teams here have been extremely balanced, we’ve made a lot of big plays, we’ve tried to limit the turnovers, we’ve protected the quarterback,” Moore said. “This offense is kind of hot and cold. Some weeks, we come out and we throw the ball all over the field and score a lot of points. Some weeks, we come out like the Seattle game, we had (seemingly) 20 yards of offense.”
Still, New Orleans was on the verge of leaving Carolina victorious after Drew Brees led a 97-yard touchdown drive for a 13-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
The Saints failed to pick up a first down on their next two possessions, and Carolina capitalized the second time by moving 65 yards in 32 seconds for the winning touchdown with 23 seconds left.
Defensively, New Orleans was dominant in the second half until Carolina’s final possession.
“We do know if we win this week, and we must win this week, we get into the tournament,” Jenkins said. “That’s all that matters. That’s what we work for in OTAs, in summer, training camp and all that. It’s just to get to the tournament. So we don’t have time to sit here and lick our wounds and feel bad and think that we’re going to show up on Sunday and just automatically get the win.”
Payton has made a slight adjustment for Christmas, moving meeting time before Wednesday’s practice to noon so players can celebrate in the morning with their families.
His main emphasis, though, is to keep the focus on Tampa Bay rather than the Carolina-Atlanta game, which starts at noon Sunday.
Kickoff for the Saints-Bucs game has been moved to 3:25 p.m., the same time as Arizona-San Francisco.
“The challenge this week is trying to guard against (thinking about various scenarios),” Payton said. “We control one thing. We know if we’re able to go out and play well and win, we’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. ... I don’t want to spend those two hours prior to the game with the television sets going and all the other potential distractions that can take place with a game that’s being played prior to ours.”