A 17-0 lead.
Against a 2-12 team they had beaten by a 38-7 score just a month earlier.
Drew Brees vs. rookie Josh Freeman.
Pierre Thomas leaves the game with bruised ribs.
Marques Colston fumbles.
Michael Spurlock silences the Superdome crowd.
Garrett Hartley chokes.
Utter frustration if you are a Saints fan.
Same old Saints.
The teacher in me, though, says that a lesson can be learned from this loss, and it can be learned before it's too late.
This past fall I was an assistant coach for my school's fifth/sixth grade football team.
On one particular Saturday morning during pregame warmups, my players looked across the field at the other team. A number of players commented on how short the other team looked, and one of them said that they looked like a bunch of ants.
An hour later, those "ants" had bitten my team to the tune of 26-0.
Currently, I am coaching some of those same players on the school's fifth grade basketball team.
It's the opening game of the season, and the same situation unfolds.
One of my players commented that the other team looked really small. I glared at him and reminded him of the last time we underestimated the other team.
Lesson learned, thankfully, as this time we defeated the opponent, 17-6.
After bolting to a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter, it seemed as if the Saints were content on coasting the rest of the way against a bunch of "ants."
They figured that a two-win team with nothing to play for would have no chance.
There was absolutely no way that Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and Drew Brees would lose a game to Raheem Morris, Greg Olson, and Josh Freeman.
Except, again, the "ants" won again and the "Aints" of old reared their ugly head.
Now, the Saints travel to Carolina to end the regular season.
Panthers star receiver Steve Smith is lost for this game with a broken arm. It appears as if the Panthers now have little to no passing threat and the Saints can focus on stopping the run.
Don't take the Panthers, their diminished passing game, and 7-8 record lightly.
They still have Jonathan Stewart, who rushed for over 200 yards at Giants Stadium. They also have quarterback Matt Moore, who is looking like the quarterback of the future in Carolina.
Hopefully, the New Orleans Saints learn the same lesson as my fifth graders did.
With a guaranteed week off after the Carolina game, perhaps there's a silver lining in Sunday's loss.
Had the Saints not blown a 17-0 lead or had Hartley's field goal attempt sailed through the uprights, Payton and his staff would have likely treated the season finale like the fourth preseason game.
We'd see Brees, his offensive line, and most of his weapons for maybe a quarter, and then we'd see gray-haired Mark Brunell taking snaps from Nick Leckey, handing the ball off to Lynell Hamilton, and throwing it to Courtney Roby and Darnell Dinkins.
How would the Saints' starters mentally prepare for such a situation?
Coach Payton told a story on NFL radio earlier this season about Brees and work ethic.
Early Sunday afternoon during the Saints' bye week, Payton, who thought he was alone at the Saints' practice facility, was leaving work when he saw someone on the Saints field. It was Brees, and he was simulating a game. He was mentally going through every game situation and every play that they had worked on throughout the season.
So we know that Brees would be mentally sharp, but I'm not so sure about the other 52 players on the roster.
If Week 17 meant nothing, then the Saints would likely have gone two (maybe three) weeks without preparing mentally like you need to in the NFL.
Now every Saint is forced to prepare for Week 17 just like it's any other week.
Perhaps losing to the Bucs was a blessing in disguise.
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