New Orleans Saints get back on track -- at least temporarily

Taysom Hill's block of a Tampa Bay punt turned Sunday's game in the Saints' favor as they won the NFC South

The New Orleans Saints were mired in their second consecutive uninspired performance.

They were in danger of losing to the 5-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the second time this season.

They were staring at the possibility of falling a game and a half and pretty much hopelessly behind the Los Angeles Rams in the battle for the top seed in the NFC.

They didn’t look anything like the team that less than two weeks ago was on a 10-game winning streak and setting the standard for the NFL.

They trailed 14-3 in the third quarter.

Then Taysom Hill blocked Bryan Anger’s punt.

And everything changed.

“We’re all in the business of making memories,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of the blocked punts.

This one will be remembered for the way that one play turned around a game and put back on track a season that was showing sings of teetering.

Mark Ingram II ripped off an 11-yard run for an offense that had five rushing yards before that.

Then Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass to Zach Line and Alvin Kamara ran for a two-point conversion.

The Bucs still led, 14-11, but the momentum had swung 180 degrees.

Suddenly the Saints pass rush was swarming Jameis Winston and the swagger the Tampa Bay offense had shown in the first half had vanished.

The offensive ineptitude that that had plagued New Orleans during a 13-10 loss at Dallas 10 days earlier was gone.

The line was opening holes for Ingram, who ran for a go-ahead touchdown on the next possession, and Alvin Kamara as well as protecting Brees, who suddenly regained the sharpness that had been missing for most of six-plus quarters.

Brees would leap over the goal line on fourth down for a touchdown that provided breathing room and Wil Lutz added a field goal for good measure.

Final: New Orleans 28, Tampa Bay 14.

It wasn’t as easy as that score might suggest.

Payton said it’s nice to win when you don’t play your best. New Orleans (11-2) played far from its best for much of the game, but after the blocked punt it looked like the team that won 10 straight before the loss at Dallas.

Was the turnaround a sign that the Saints are back on track and one of the strongest Super Bowl contenders in the NFL, or was it just evidence of the Saints taking advantage of a bad team that wasn’t capable of playing 60 minutes at the level at which it performed for the first 30 minutes and inevitably reverted to form.

We’ll find out in the coming weeks as New Orleans – which clinched the NFC South title and is a division champion in consecutive seasons for the first time – gears up for the playoffs. Next week the Saints visit free-falling Carolina in what could be their final game away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome until the Super Bowl, if they secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

They close out with home games against the Steelers and the Panthers, who are in second place but were mathematically eliminated from the division race before they ever played New Orleans.

The last two games have demonstrated that the Saints are more vulnerable than they appeared during their winning streak.

The performance of the offensive line has dropped off dramatically. Certainly the absence of left tackle Terron Armstead hasn’t helped, but he’s close to returning.

The line’s struggles have led to a sub-par running game, which has made life harder on Brees, who suddenly for the first time since this season looks like the 39 years of age that he is.

It was impressive when Brees threw touchdown passes to four different undrafted players in a victory against the Falcons on Thanksgiving. But that doesn’t change the fact that Michael Thomas is the only consistently dependable wide receiver on the roster.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this season is the realization that the defense has been the most consistent unit of late. Its performance kept New Orleans in the game at Dallas and kept Sunday’s game manageable until Hill made that game-turning play.

The Saints defense is legitimately good. The offense has shown its vulnerability in the last two games.

The team is still a really good team, but a really good team that’s still a work in progress with three games left in the regular season.

We know New Orleans will be back in the playoffs.

Right now, we’re not sure of much else.