Missed opportunities don’t cost the Saints ... barely

TAMPA, Fla. —It was rendered moot by the late dramatics — Drew Brees down the middle to Marques Colston, then Garrett Hartley punching in the 27-yard game-winner — but a closer examination of the New Orleans Saints’ 16-14 victory Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers leaves you with a potentially numbing conclusion.

The Saints nearly blew it.

They squandered so many opportunities, particularly with a bizarre turn of events just before halftime. It was a pointless sequence — literally.

“We just can’t do things like that,’’ Brees said.

“I’ll take the blame,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We’ll get better at it. We have to get better.’’

Twice, nearing a touchdown that would’ve provided a 10-point lead, the Saints appeared to break the goal line’s plane. Twice, a potential scoring play went to the replay booth for review. And in between, there was a chip-shot field-goal attempt.

Net result?

The Saints got no points. Zero.

“They say that final yard is the hardest yard to get,’’ tight end Jimmy Graham said. “We definitely left too many points out there.’’

And in a tight game, that nearly proved to be the difference. Instead, the Saints could celebrate their smoke-and-mirrors win without dwelling on their carelessness.

“With Brees, we kind of do things like this all the time,’’ Colston said. “Just get it done, get on the plane and get home. But we’ll get on the corrections. We did make way too many mistakes.’’

The biggest was Brees’ fourth-quarter interception, returned for an 85-yard touchdown by Bucs linebacker Mason Foster with 12:40 to play and putting Tampa Bay up 14-13. But the Saints’ rally saved the day, and the inability to pad a 10-7 halftime lead was reduced to a curiosity.

On second-and-6 from Tampa Bay’s 30-yard line, Brees seemingly found Graham for a touchdown as he barged over the goal line. As soon as Graham spiked the football over the crossbar, the play was reviewed. Graham’s knee was ruled down at Tampa Bay’s 1-yard line, reversing the official’s call. Still, the Saints were in great shape.

First down: With everyone covered, Brees threw out of the end zone.

Second down: Mark Ingram was dumped for a 1-yard loss.

Third down: Pierre Thomas went left for no gain.

So Hartley was summoned for a 20-yard field-goal attempt, which he punched through effortlessly, and the Saints had a 13-7 lead.

But there was a flag. Foster was called for being offside and Payton, going against the book, opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 20 seconds left in the half.

Ingram, again trying the left side, was wrestled down by Lavonte David and Foster near the goal line. It was close enough to review — did Ingram break the plane? — but this time, the play was upheld.

“We should be able to get a yard,’’ Ingram said. “It’s frustrating.’’

After all of that, the Saints came away with nothing.

“We can’t do things like that in the red zone,’’ Payton said. “We’ve got to clean that up. We were fortunate (to not have it matter in the game’s outcome).

“It’s great to have a guy like Drew because you never feel like you’re out of a game. He has such belief and such great body language, and that influences our younger players. But we came close (to not winning). If Tampa gets another first down, they’re on a knee and it’s over. We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of our opportunities.’’