1st quarter, 4th and less than a yard, inside the Tampa 20, Payton takes a time out, then chooses to kick the field goal. The Saints had been dictating the game to the Bucs for almost the entire quarter, they could do as they pleased, particularly on offense up to that moment.
THAT is the moment, in my mind, that they quit on the game, or at least the offense did (the defense actually put up a pretty good fight, IMO).
Put simply, here are the messages sent.
1) You CAN'T make a yard when the chips are down.
2) The Bucs D can stop us.
3) We don't need to make a statement - to the Bucs, to our fans, or even to ourselves.
An offense that was absolutely dictating terms to an opposing defense, when it is in that position, should move to finish them off, in no uncertain terms. The Saints should have come out on 4th down in that situation, lined Hamilton up behind Eckel, followed two of the better OG's in the NFL, and DARED the Bucs D to try and stop them. Punch them RIGHT IN THE FACE at that moment. They are reeling, and you let them off the hook - they were essentially an injured animal in a corner. You NEVER let that animal have a chance, because it is the one that will kill you - and that is precisely what happened, isn't it?
This loss was a COACHING loss, this was a loss of nerve by Sean Payton. The riverboat gambler "play to win" mentality is WHY this team won 13 straight games, the conservative "play to not lose" version of this team is lucky not to have lost the last 4 instead of the last 2. Someone needs to get Payton's attention, tell him to "sack up" or this team will back into the post season then go one and done. Where is that swagger? The BALLS?
He better get it back, and quickly.