Somehow, the Saints were seemingly going to have one last play, one last chance to keep their season alive Saturday against the Seahawks.
New Orleans had quickly trimmed a 15-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to eight and, after a successful onside kick, suddenly had the ball within Hail Mary range with 13 seconds to go. Quarterback Drew Brees, the engineer of 23 fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks, then found his most reliable target, receiver Marques Colston, at the Seattle 38-yard line.
Seven seconds left. Enough time for a final heave.
Colston needed only to step out of bounds to set it up, but he didn’t, inexplicably, and flung an illegal forward pass across the field to the bewilderment of teammates and opponents alike.
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The penalty resulted in a 10-second runoff and the end to a 23-15 defeat in the NFC divisional round.
“It’s disappointing,” said coach Sean Payton. “It’s disappointing to lose in a playoff game, so close to where your final goal is.”
Colston had caught the Saints’ previous touchdown to make it a one-possession game, and he then pounced on a loose onside kick. Those big plays — not to mention his 11 catches for 144 yards — were mostly forgotten after the head-scratching gaffe, something he declined to talk about after the game.
Asked about the play, Payton said, bluntly: “We’ll look at the film. Next question.”
For the Saints, it’s more like “next season.”
There was much more to blame Saturday than an impossible-to-explain final play. Their high-powered offense showed up too late and their mistakes were too great to upend top-seeded Seattle at home.
Kicker Shayne Graham missed two field goals, albeit each from long distance and into the wind. On his first miss, from 45 yards, holder Luke McCown had the laces facing the wrong way.
Running back Mark Ingram, coming off perhaps the best game of his career in the wild-card round, fumbled on the first play of the second quarter to set up a short touchdown drive by the Seahawks.
“It definitely hurts,” said Ingram, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama. “Every time I carry that football, I’m carrying the team’s dreams and aspirations. I let them down at a critical moment in the game.”
A slow start, amid a record CenturyLink Field crowd and stormlike conditions, didn’t help. The Saints had no points at halftime, a first this season. Brees had just 34 passing yards at the break, the lowest in his eight seasons with New Orleans.
Numbers improved in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to erase a 16-point deficit.
Much of the pregame attention had been centered on New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, a matchup nightmare at 6 feet 7 who had an NFL-most 16 receiving touchdowns in the regular season. He finished with one catch for 8 yards.
“It’s as complete a defense as there is in the league,” Brees said of the Seahawks.