METAIRIE, La. -- Reeling from a flat performance in Sunday's 28-13 loss to the Detroit Lions in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints begin the final quarter of the season between a rock and a hard place.
After wasting a golden opportunity that could have seen them pull to within one game of the NFC South lead, thanks to the setback against the Lions, the Saints (5-7) find themselves in a dire situation going into the final four games.
The problem is three of their remaining games will be on the road, a rugged stretch that starts with Sunday's matchup with the hard-charging Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) in Raymond James Stadium.
With four wins in a row, the Bucs are suddenly tied for the NFC South lead with the Atlanta Falcons and are in control of their own destiny heading down the stretch.
On the other hand, the Saints aren't and likely will need to win all of their games and get some help. The good thing is three of the games are within the division -- including two with the Buccaneers, whom they play for a second time on Christmas Eve in New Orleans.
But they couldn't help but thing about the opportunity that was lost only one week after a dominating 49-21 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in which the Saints piled up 555 total yards.
"We had a chance to get one step closer, and we didn't do that," strong safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "Right now, we're just a roller-coaster team."
While they're still in the playoff hunt, the Saints know they can't afford to have any more clunkers like they had Sunday against the Lions when the NFL's top-ranked offense uncharacteristically struggled for most of the afternoon -- especially the passing game.
The Saints had 137 total yards on 23 plays at halftime and 223 yards on 33 snaps through three quarters before finishing with 369 yards. But Drew Brees threw three interceptions and the Saints had the ball for a little more than 23 minutes.
"It was probably one of our worst performances in a long time," running back Mark Ingram said.
Saints coach Sean Payton pointed to his team's lack of ball control and snaps against the Lions, but wouldn't compare it to a Week 2 loss to the New York Giants when the offense also sputtered in a 16-13 setback.
"Obviously, all of us, starting with myself, coming from a game we just played it's frustrating because you don't have the snap totals or opportunities," Payton said. "It's still about the execution. ... When that happens, you feel like you weren't at your best and you're anxious to get started again."
Said Brees: "We are disappointed with the way that Sunday turned out, but you turn on the tape and it becomes very obvious what we need to do better. We are on a mission to get those things corrected, and hopefully, get a win this week."
When they get back on the field against the Bucs, they know they won't have the luxury of looking at the scoreboard and wondering what anyone else is doing.
The key will be to what they're doing, defensive end Darryl Tapp said.
"We're not in position to look at anybody else's record or what anybody else is doing," Tapp said. "We have to focus on us, we have to focus on getting this stuff taken care of."
49th regular-season meeting. Saints lead the series, 30-18. After the Saints took seven consecutive games in the series, the Bucs finally ended the run with a 26-19 Week 2 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the first of their two meetings last year. The Saints, however, rebounded to take the rematch in Raymond James Stadium, 24-17, on Dec. 13 for their fourth win in a row in Tampa. The Saints have won six of the last seven meetings at the site of Sunday's game, outscoring the Bucs, 187-118, starting with a 38-7 beating in 2009. Since Sean Payton took over in 2006, the Saints are 13-7 against the Bucs.
--After reaching the midway point of their season with a 4-4 record following a 0-3 start, the Saints thought they were on the way up in the NFC South standings.
But three losses in their last four games, the most recent being a 28-13 setback to the Detroit Lions last Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, have dropped them back into a familiar spot.
With four games remaining, the Saints are 5-7 after failing to climb back to the .500 mark with a listless performance against the Lions.
The Saints haven't been above .500 since finishing the 2013 season with an 11-5 record. That was also the last time they reached the playoffs before finishing 7-9 each of the last two seasons.
"We don't like that," quarterback Drew Brees said. "We don't like having that on the resume. We don't like the up and down. Unfortunately, that's the way it's been the past few years, and this year as well."
--Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who said in a Sports Illustrated story that he sustained a sprained MCL in a Week 2 loss to the New York Giants and kept playing with it, confirmed the injury earlier this week.
"Yeah, that was early on this season, eight, nine weeks ago, something like that," said Jordan, a two-time Pro Bowl pick in his first five seasons with the Saints. "It was a Grade 1 or whatever it was. ... Those are things you have to deal with."
One week after suffering the injury, Jordan played every defensive snap against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3. Now nearing the end of his sixth NFL season, the former first-round draft pick has never missed a regular-season game.
According to the New Orleans Advocate, Jordan has played 90.8 percent of the Saints defensive snaps this season, one of the highest workloads in the league.
Jordan said he's not the only Saints defensive lineman playing through pain. He noted that rookie defensive tackle David Onyemata has also continued playing while dealing with a sprained MCL.
"My passion for the game is strong," said Jordan, who leads the Saints with five sacks this season. "I hate not being on the field."
Jordan, the son of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Steve Jordan, revealed that he also sprained his MCL during his rookie season and kept playing that time as well.
"I would never be like, 'Hey, guys ... by the way, the reason why it looks like I'm a step slow is because my leg will not catch up to me,'" he said.
--Former Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, the team's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, reached out recently to third-year pro Brandin Cooks after he spoke out about his role in the offense.
Colston was in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday to be recognized as one of the 50 greatest players of the franchise's first 50 seasons, nine months after the 10-year veteran was released by the club.
Colston was a favorite of quarterback Drew Brees during their decade together. Brees said last week somebody has been frustrated with his role in the offense "every week or two" during his 11-year tenure with the team.
"When you have so much talent and so many weapons, the ball gets spread around a ton," Colston said of his conversation with Cooks. "That's part of what makes the offense successful. It's tough at times."
Colston was the Saints' top star when they drafted Cooks out of Oregon State and played with the speedy wideout for two seasons.
"It wasn't anything out of the ordinary," Colston said. "We stay in touch. We built a relationship over two years. He's a guy I've got a ton of respect for, and we just developed a friendship."
Cooks, who caught seven balls for 73 yards in a loss to the Detroit Lions after not being targeted in a 49-21 pasting of the Los Angeles Rams in the previous game, said he listened to Colston's advice.
"That means a lot," he said. "From a guy that's played here for a long time and did it at a high level, for him to reach out to me and give me the understanding that there will be situations like that, it meant a lot."
MLB Craig Robertson did not practice Wednesday because of a shoulder injury and his status for Sunday's game with the Tampa Bay Bucs is unknown.
WR Michael Thomas was held out of Wednesday's practice because of a foot injury and it's not known if he'll be available for Sunday's game.
TE Josh Hill, who reportedly fractured his right leg in Sunday's game with the Detroit Lions, did not practice Wednesday.
C Max Unger, who hasn't missed an offensive snap this season, was limited in practice Wednesday because of a foot injury and his availability for Sunday is unknown.
LT Terron Armstead, who has missed the last two games because of knee and quadriceps injuries, returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday.
RB Mark Ingram was limited Wednesday because of a toe injury and his availability for the Bucs game is unknown.
RT Zach Strief had limited participation in practice Wednesday because of an elbow injury and his availability for Sunday's game is not known.
G/C Senio Kelemete was limited in Wednesday's practice with a hip injury and his status for the game with the Bucs was unknown.
RB Daniel Lasco, who has missed the last five games with a hamstring injury, returned to practice Wednesday and worked on a limited basis.
T Rob Crisp was added to the practice squad on Wednesday.
LB Lamar Louis was released from the practice squad on Tuesday.