FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — At the end of the day Sunday, it was difficult to blame the New Orleans Saints defense for the club’s first loss of the season.
Instead, you can lay most of it at the feet of Tom Brady.
After all, it’s not like he hadn’t done it before.
The future Hall of Famer had produced 37 late-game or overtime victories before adding the Saints to his hit list in the New England Patriots’ 30-27 win in Gillette Stadium.
Yes, a weary defense gave up a 70-yard drive that produced the game-winning points on a touchdown pass from Brady to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins with 5 seconds to play.
Yes, cornerback Jabari Greer lost track of Thompkins when he made his way to the corner of the end zone and out-fought Greer for the ball.
Yes, needing one more stop, the Saints gave up a 9-yard pass from Brady to Austin Collie on fourth-and-4 with 24 seconds left that kept the drive going.
But until that last-gasp drive, the Saints defense did what it had to do in the second half: holding the Patriots to two field goals and limiting Brady and his sputtering offense to just 74 yards, recording an interception and a sack.
It was the kind of defensive performance Saints fans yearned for a year ago — if only it hadn’t turned out so badly.
It certainly wasn’t the way the Saints wanted to go into their off week. It’s never good to have a bad taste in your mouth when you’re trying to enjoy some extended down time for the first time since mid-July.
“It stings, and it will sting awhile,” coach Sean Payton said. “But we’ve got a bye coming up here, and we just have to make sure it doesn’t carry over to the next game.”
It’ll likely sting a lot more considering the Saints had the Patriots squarely on the ropes after the defense made two stops in the final three minutes: turning the ball over on downs and coming away with an interception by Keenan Lewis.
But the offense couldn’t make one more first down on either possession after the defensive stops — which would have sealed a sixth consecutive win and a joyous plane ride home.
No one had to tell Drew Brees that the good work of the defense for the first 29 minutes of the second half was wasted when the offense couldn’t find a way to make one more first down.
“This one is difficult because you certainly felt like you had a chance,” Brees said. “Lord knows we had our chances at the end there. I know you can’t give Tom Brady three chances at a two-minute drill.”
Finishing on both sides of the ball was a theme in the locker room after the offense couldn’t put the Patriots away and the defense failed to stop them at a most critical time.
“It was very tough because our offense couldn’t finish it out,” said former Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, who had seen Brady’s late-game wizardry on more than one occasion as a teammate from 2004 to 2009. “That’s what Tommy does. Give their defense some credit for stopping us.”
Brees and Watson both lamented the fact that the Saints are going into their off week and won’t play again until Oct. 27, giving them a lot of time to stew over the loss.
“Whether you win or lose, there’s always a positive and there’s always a negative that you can take from it.” Watson said, pointing specifically to their comeback from a 17-7 halftime deficit in a tough place to play. “There’s definitely some things to build on, some positives, and there will be come things to correct.”
At 5-1, the Saints can take solace in the fact that they’re still very much in control of the NFC South race with a 21/2-game lead over Carolina.
At the same time, they know it could have been a lot better.
“Coming off a loss, that’s not the taste you want left in your mouth,” Brees said. “You always want to get back to work as quickly as possible after that so you can right the wrong, kind of wipe away the sins of the game that you lost. But it is what it is.”
And it’ll have to wait.