Slow start dooms Saints, who no longer control playoff destiny after loss to Rams

With a prime-time audience and major playoff implications on the line, the New Orleans Saints struggled for three quarters Thursday night, falling behind 23 points before rallying for two touchdowns late in a 30-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

The defeat means New Orleans no longer controls its playoff destiny, and while they’re at worst a game out of first and playing the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week, this was another chance for a signature win that came and went.

“We certainly would have liked to start the game better, play the game better, finish better,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said of his 7-8 team. “But we didn’t. I’m not into the percentages though. I’m really not. I’m just focused on … look, we let an opportunity go by, so now we have to get ready for the things we control, which is getting ready to go play Tampa.”

New Orleans’ defense had not given up a touchdown in its last two wins against the Panthers and Giants, but they gave up three in falling behind Thursday. The offense, which had taken a step forward in the last three games, had a 45-yard touchdown from Derek Carr to Rashid Shaheed, but didn’t take a snap in the red zone until midway through the fourth quarter; the Rams had 17 of them at that point.

On crucial downs, the Saints offense consistently came up empty. In the first three quarters, they went 2-for-8 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down, with Carr going 3 of 8 for 22 yards with an interception and two sacks on those plays.

“We did a great job of fighting back, but it wasn’t enough,” said Carr, who had two touchdown passes in the final seven minutes to pull within a score.

The Rams got separation in a close game in a sequence of plays before and after halftime. The Saints, trailing just 10-7 with a minute left before halftime, had a fourth-and-5 at the Rams 42. Allen opted to go for it, and Carr’s pass intended for tight end Juwan Johnson fell incomplete. The Rams capitalized, marching down the field and getting a touchdown with 21 seconds left for a 17-7 lead, then extended that with a field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter.

“I love the aggressiveness,” Carr said of Allen’s confidence to go for it. “DA was very clear on that to the team. Obviously, against that offense, you’re not going to win a lot of games kicking field goals against them … We knew as an offense we needed to execute, and we had opportunities.”

Matthew Stafford, Rams destror Derek Carr, Saints

Matthew Stafford, Rams destror Derek Carr, Saints

The New Orleans defense, which had 18 takeaways in the first nine games, has just four total in the last six, and no interceptions in the last four. They allowed Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to play within a point of his best passer rating of the season, going 24-for-34 for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Needing a defensive stop late to get the ball back for a potential tying score, the Saints saw veteran Cam Jordan get flagged for a neutral zone infraction on third down, allowing the Rams to run out the clock.

The Saints are now left to hope the Bucs falter down the stretch — if Tampa Bay wins any two of their final three games (including against the Saints next week), they win the division. If they stumble and lose to the Jaguars on Sunday, the two teams are still tied for first, but the Bucs would have the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Saints, even if New Orleans won next week.

If the Saints can pull out wins against Tampa Bay and Atlanta in the final two weeks, their odds to make the playoffs at 9-8 are pretty strong — the New York Times playoff simulator has them with just a 15 percent chance to make the postseason right now, but with two wins, that jumps up to 72 percent, with a 58 percent chance to still win the division.

“We’ll regroup,” Allen said in closing his postgame comments Thursday night. “We’re still in this thing.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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