Too little, too late for Saints offense in Seattle

SEATTLE — Tight end Jimmy Graham showed that the Saints would have some more fight this time about two hours before Saturday’s kickoff when he was warming up without pads at CenturyLink Field and nearly came to blows with a group of Seattle Seahawks players.

It took more than four hours for the New Orleans offense to show much fight from there.

The 409 yards the Saints put up against the NFL’s top defense were admirable, especially with the way most of them came during a furious fourth-quarter comeback that came up short in a 23-15 loss, but the lighting of the offense’s match came too late to be enough.

New Orleans piled up more than half its total yardage (205 of 409 yards) and more than half its first downs (13 of 25) in the fourth quarter alone — not to mention all 15 of its points. But there were plenty of opportunities early on for an offense that struggled for almost all of the 60 minutes played in a 34-7 loss at Seattle on Dec. 2.

“At the end of the day, some of the opportunities we had we didn’t take advantage of,” center Brian de la Puente said after the Saints fell behind 16-0 but had three fourth-quarter drives while trailing by eight points — only to come up short.

Having been stymied by the Seattle defense for the first three quarters of Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game, the Saints finally put some points on the board following a nine-play, 74-yard drive. Khiry Robinson’s 1-yard touchdown run and the subsequent two-point conversion pulled the Saints to within 16-8 early in the fourth quarter, and for the first time on this rain-drenched afternoon, the playoff game didn’t look like a replay of the manhandling in Seattle six weeks earlier.

After Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch appeared to put the game out of reach with a 31-yard touchdown run with 2:40 remaining, the Saints marched 80 yards in nine plays — needing just two minutes and 14 seconds to get there — to pull within eight points again on a Marques Colston 9-yard touchdown reception. Colston then recovered the onside kick but effectively ended the game when he threw an ill-advised forward lateral with two seconds left.

Colston wasn’t talking about any of it afterward, but the Saints were obviously frustrated with their performance.

“The closer you get (to the Super Bowl), the more it hurts, the more it stings,” quarterback Drew Brees said after completing 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown. “… It’s my 13th year, and you don’t know how many more opportunities you might have.”

The screen pass seemed to be a recurring problem for the Saints, who were plagued by dropped balls and misfires from Brees on a rainy and windy afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.

“It seemed like (Seattle’s defense) always knew when it was coming,” running back Darren Sproles said of the Saints’ problems connecting on screen passes.

The most baffling part of the Saints’ early offensive struggles revolved around the non-existence of Graham. He did not catch a pass until there were 15 seconds left in the game, finishing with one reception for eight yards.

“I like to do a lot more to help this team win, obviously — that’s the type of player that I am,” he said afterward. “If the team wants me to catch 10 balls, I’m going to do that. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”

Graham didn’t have a whole lot to say about the pre-game exchange with Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin, which was caught on camera. Graham said only that Irvin “tried to disrespect me, and I wasn’t going to let anybody disrespect me.”

Irvin told reporters that the incident started when he told Graham that he was stretching out on the Seahawks’ side of the field during an informal warm-up two hours before the game.

He said that Graham immediately started yelling at him, saying: “ ‘I’m Jimmy. I’m warming up. I’m Jimmy.’ ”

Added Irvin: “I don’t know why he was so mad. Maybe it was because it was raining, and they’re used to playing in a dome.”

None of the Saints were using the conditions as an excuse, but they were frustrated by how long it took to start putting points on the board.

“We had some chances where we could have scored (early), but we didn’t,” Sproles said.

Of the offense’s late spark, Sproles added: “We didn’t get the win, so it didn’t matter.”