How can Saints move on? Win three division games in 12 days

Clark liked the Saints better with Bridgewater at QB (1:06)

Ryan Clark still believes the Saints are the best team in the NFL, but thinks the Saints' offense has become too reliant on Drew Brees since his return. (1:06)

METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees summed up the most surprising loss of the 2019 NFL season in one word.

“Unacceptable,” Brees said, loudly slamming his fist into the palm of his other hand for added emphasis when he was reminded that the New Orleans Saints had never scored so few points at home in the Superdome since he and Sean Payton arrived in 2006.

“There you go. Unacceptable.”

Fortunately, the Saints (7-2) built up enough of a cushion during the first half of this season that they can probably afford one inexplicable stinker like their 26-9 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday.

But they have now used up their “get out of jail free” card.

The Saints still have as good of an opportunity as anyone to earn a top-two seed in the NFC -- especially because they’ll host the 8-1 San Francisco 49ers in Week 14. But first things first, they must prove the Falcons loss was a “one-off” by putting the NFC South on lock over the next three weeks.

New Orleans will play all three of its division rivals in a 12-day span (at Tampa Bay this coming Sunday, vs. Carolina in Week 12 and at Atlanta on Thanksgiving night).

It’s hard to describe an entire three-game stretch as “must-win.” But the Saints will be favored in all three games -- and they certainly don’t want to open the door any wider for the 5-4 Panthers to turn this into a tight division race.

Ideally, the Saints can be in a position to rest their starters by the time they travel to Carolina in Week 17.

“These are defining games, obviously,” Brees said. “Because not only do you put yourself in a position to win one, but you put someone in your division in a position to lose one, right? That is why we always say, in a lot of cases these are worth two. So these are important games.”

The Saints’ reaction throughout this week seems to be the right mix of moving on while still acknowledging the seriousness of their flop against Atlanta.

“The thing in this league, you don’t want one game to turn into two games,” linebacker Demario Davis said.

“Take it as a lesson. At the end of the day, that’s embarrassing to lose to a team like that," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “You face what you have to face and make all preparations to be better from this point on."

“[Monday and Tuesday] we spent a lot of time on the corrections. And then quickly you turn the page to this opponent," Payton said. “And it's attention to detail from all of us. Coaches making sure we put a plan in place, and [players] get ready to bounce back and play a good football game."

The Saints’ job won’t get any easier because they suffered some key injuries against the Falcons. They lost starting left guard Andrus Peat to a broken forearm that should sideline him for about six weeks. And top cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s status is in doubt for this week because of a hamstring injury.

That second one is especially concerning as the Saints prepare to face Tampa Bay’s dynamic receiving duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who rank second and fourth in the NFL in receiving yards this season with 924 and 840, respectively, with a combined 13 touchdown catches. Lattimore put the clamps on Evans in Week 5, when he had zero catches in the Saints’ 31-24 victory over the Buccaneers.

But regardless of who is in the lineup for the Saints, they have some glaring issues they must clean up after they basically self-destructed this past Sunday.

They repeatedly killed their own drives and kept allowing Atlanta to stay on the field with a total of 12 penalties for 90 yards. They allowed a stunning six sacks, even though the Saints had only allowed 12 sacks total in the first eight games. They ran the ball just 11 times for 52 yards. And they still have not identified enough reliable targets in the passing game beyond receiver Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara and emerging tight end Jared Cook.

Brees and Payton both seemed to be most perturbed by the disparity on third downs. The Saints converted just 3 of 12 third-down attempts and were 0 of 3 on fourth downs.

“Listen, we were extremely disappointed in our performance. I think we know we're a lot better than that,” Brees said. “And we understand that, especially at this point in the season, this is a time when we really want to start separating ourselves from the pack … and position ourselves to achieve the goals that we have set for this team. And we understand that every game you gotta show up and you gotta play your best.

“You need to have guys that take it upon themselves to understand that when you do have a bad day, that you find a way to turn that into something positive. You find a way to create even more of a sense of urgency that allows you to come back and play much better the next time out. That's our mindset.”