Mickles: Saints’ playoff run ends on somber note in Seattle

SEATTLE — For the second time in 39 days, the New Orleans Saints had a lot to think about Saturday night on an excruciatingly long plane ride home from the Pacific Northwest.

But don’t think, not even for a minute, that Saturday night’s trip back home to the Crescent City was in any way easier than after a 34-7 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2.

While that one was bad enough, it hurt for only a little bit because the Saints moved on to the next game on the schedule — as they usually do, win or lose — just a day later.

Saturday’s 23-15 loss to the Seahawks will probably sting long, long after their chartered plane touches down at Louis Armstrong International Airport early Sunday morning.

That’s because the Saints’ season, which was extended a week ago with an exhilarating 26-24 wild-card win at Philadelphia, ended abruptly with the latest setback to the Seahawks in the NFC divisional playoffs at CenturyLink Field.

Unfortunately, the sixth-seeded Saints know that feeling all too well.

They were eliminated in the divisional round for the second time in the past three seasons, the loss mirroring a 36-32 last-seconds road defeat to the San Francisco 49ers after the 2011 season.

That day, the 49ers scored the winning touchdown with 9 seconds to play, sending the Saints packing a year after they were beaten by the Seahawks in a wild-card game.

Saturday’s win put the Seahawks, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, in the conference championship game next week. They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s other divisional matchup, between the 49ers and Carolina Panthers, for a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Saints had high hopes and dreams, especially after starting the season with five wins in a row and recording a ninth victory before the end of November, of making it back to the Super Bowl.

But they can only think about what could have been after not being able to nail down the No. 2 seed — even despite their loss to the Seahawks the first time around.

If they had succeeded, they would be playing Sunday afternoon in the cozy confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a raucous crowd on their side.

On Saturday, the Saints, who were 7-9 and out of the playoffs last season, couldn’t handle the wind and rain and the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense for the first three quarters.

They ultimately paid a steep price with mistakes that get teams beat on the road in the NFL — particularly in the postseason.

Running back Mark Ingram had a rare fumble that led to a Seahawks touchdown in the second period. Shayne Graham missed two long field goals — both into a roaring wind. And the Saints committed eight penalties for 74 yards.

“It’s not a good feeling, especially after you come out in June and are going hard, then you come up short,” running back Darren Sproles said. “It’s not a good feeling at all.”

Even though they battled back from a 16-0 halftime deficit and managed to make it a game right until the end, it’ll linger for a while — at least until they return in mid-April to begin their offseason strength and conditioning program.

“You can take all the positives you want (out of the game),” Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan said, “but we are out of the playoffs. We have to focus on getting better this offseason.”

“It’s tough,” said somber coach Sean Payton, whose team won 12 games, counting the win against the Eagles. “It’s always tough when you get this far and you’re not able to finish.”