Slow start dooms Saints to playoff loss in Seattle

SEATTLE — After accounting for the Saints’ only turnover in their season-ending 23-15 loss to Seattle on Saturday, running back Mark Ingram walked off to the shower in the visitors’ locker room with his eyes fixed to the ground and his head shaking from side to side.

When he returned, he exhaled sharply before telling a group of reporters, “Every time I carry that football, I carry this team’s dreams and aspirations. And I let them down at a critical moment. It definitely hurts.”

Ingram was far from alone in his feelings. All around him, the No. 6 seed Saints (12-6) lamented missed opportunities and blown plays that doomed them against the top-seeded and heavily favored Seahawks (14-3), who left no margin for error in an NFC divisional showdown that unfolded in the rainy, windy and deafening elements of CenturyLink Field.

Among the biggest, there were two missed field goals, which Shayne Graham booted wide left while kicking into the wind from 45 yards in the first quarter and 48 in the fourth. They came a week after he set a Saints postseason record by drilling four field goals at Philadelphia, including a 32-yard walk-off winner to lift New Orleans to its first road playoff victory in franchise history.

“My job as a professional athlete is to make those plays and help my team,” said Graham, cutting himself no slack because of the weather. “I hate it that I wasn’t able to make those plays.”

A Saints defense that held Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to a season-low 103 yards on 9-of-18 passing and sacked him three times wasn’t in the mood to award itself any moral victories, either. A defense that forced the Seahawks to punt six times — one shy of their season high — wasn’t interested in any silver linings, even if it had lost three key members to year-ending injuries since the third week of November.

Five of those punts came on Seattle’s first five drives of the second half, allowing the Saints to pull within eight points in the fourth quarter after going down 16-0 in the first three periods — the first time they had been shut out that far into a game since a 38-0 loss Jan. 6, 2002, to San Francisco.

They weren’t upset that Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch had his second-best rushing performance this season, carrying 28 times for 140 yards and scores of 15 yards in the second quarter and 31 in the fourth. They knew the Seahawks would make their plays, whether they came from Lynch or Wilson.

The Saints were mad that they failed to take the ball away from the Seahawks, safety Malcolm Jenkins said. They were mad that only six of their 19 takeaways this year came away from home. The team managed only six points off those road takeaways, and the last of those came in Week 5.

“They got a turnover, and we didn’t,” Jenkins said. “We played well, but it didn’t matter because we didn’t get a turnover.”

It seemed no one took the loss harder than Ingram. On the first play of the second quarter, Ingram — who until then had carried the ball four times for 34 yards — took a handoff up the middle. Defensive end Michael Bennett met Ingram at the line of scrimmage, stripped the ball and recovered it at New Orleans’ 24.

The Saints had managed to escape the first quarter playing into a driving wind having only given up a pair of field goals following a 16-yard shanked punt by Thomas Morstead and a missed field goal by Graham. But two plays after Ingram’s fumble, the second of his three-year career, Lynch tore off the first of his two TDs, and that put Seattle up 13-0 — making the matchup reminiscent of Seattle’s 34-7 beatdown of the visiting Saints back on Dec. 2.

“It’s my responsibility to take care of the football. I didn’t do it on that drive, and it cost us,” said Ingram, who only carried the ball five more times for 15 yards the rest of the game. He had emerged as a hero a week earlier in Philadelphia by rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown.

“I take a lot of responsibility for holding the ball,” Ingram said. “I just made a mistake.”

And, given what the Saints offense did against Seattle’s top-ranked defense, that all conspired to seal the 2013 Saints’ fate.

Running back Khiry Robinson rushed 13 times for 57 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown — the score became 16-8 Seattle after Ingram punched in a two-point conversion. Quarterback Drew Brees completed 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown. He was 19-of-31 for 275 yards in the second half.

“He’s going to fight all the way through until the clock hits zero, and you saw that today,” Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said of Brees.

But Brees’ TD throw — a 9-yarder to Marques Colston with 26 seconds left — was inconsequential.

Lynch had already punished Graham’s second miss with his second TD with 2:40 to go. Aside from that, the Saints lost possession on downs twice, and they were penalized 74 yards. Tight end Jimmy Graham didn’t make his first catch — an 8-yarder — until there were less than 30 seconds left.

After Colston recovered an onside kick after his score, he threw a forward lateral from Seattle’s 38 on the last play of the game — and the season.

“I was proud of how our guys fought and competed this year,” coach Sean Payton said. “They found a way to win 12 games. It’s disappointing to lose in a playoff game, so close to where your final goal is, and yet I thought there were a lot of good signs.”