OPINION: Saints are their own party poppers

NEW ORLEANS — There was one defining moment after another in the New Orleans Saints’ nuclear meltdown on Sunday afternoon in the Louisiana Superdome, but none of them compared to the final moments of regulation, when Garrett Hartley trotted onto the field for what looked like a shaky coronation.

The Saints hadn’t played that well against Tampa Bay, a 2-12 Bucs squad that obviously had nothing to lose in New Orleans, but their tattered defense had seemingly kept them in control, at least until Tampa’s Micheal Spurlock scored on a 77-yard punt return.

(The kind of play we never saw from him when he was Eli Manning’s successor as the Ole Miss quarterback, but that’s another story for another time.)

This moment, sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, was the time when Saints owner Tom Benson popped his champagne cork and had to settle for Ripple instead.

No doubt you’ve seen the television replays, of Benson jumping up and down in the owner’s suite with his wife, Gayle, after Hartley’s stab at immortality made the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs look like poetry in motion. His attempt at a 37-yard field goal looked like one of my drives back in the day at the Falls Road Golf Course in Potomac, Md., before I had the good sense to give up that stupid game once and for all.

T-Benz was ready to get that party started in the French Quarter.

Instead, the Bucs’ Connor Barth calmly delivered a 47-yard field goal in overtime, sending the Saints to a puzzling 20-17 defeat and bringing some intrigue, and more than just a shade of doubt, to their postseason prospects in Sean Payton’s fourth season in New Orleans.

“We shouldn’t have been in that situation,” Saints defensive end Will Smith said, “to have it come down to a field goal.”

No, but it did.

It happened because Marques Colston came up with a clutch reception in the middle of the field before fumbling the ball away and costing the Saints some valuable momentum in the fourth quarter.

It happened because the Saints don’t have many viable options at nose tackle, and I don’t think they’ll be able to lure Curley Culp or Reggie Kinlaw out of retirement.

It happened because the Saints obviously haven’t been the same team that kicked the Thanksgiving stuffing out of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on “Monday Night Football” about a month ago, and it happened because they’d spent the better part of the season living on the edge against weak competition before getting their act together when it counted.

It happened because, well, they’re the Saints.

Because we have seen this movie before.

And it doesn’t age like a rare vintage. It takes on the flavor of “Champipple,” which was the late, great Fred G. Sanford’s concoction when he mixed cheap champagne with Ripple.

I think I saw a couple fools who had a little too much of that early Monday morning off Royal Street in the Quarter.

Regardless, with the Saints, it’s never over until Tom Benson breaks out his parasol and leads a disjointed Second Line on the Superdome floor, or the kick goes through the uprights, whichever comes first.

One of my homeboys in the media, the shrewd, understated Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, asked Hartley how it felt to watch Tampa Bay punch the Saints in the gut time and again, with former Auburn star Carnell “Cadillac” Williams on straight-ahead dive plays, in the overtime before Barth showed us how it’s done with the game on the line.

“What would you feel like? It’s definitely a humbling experience,” Hartley snapped.

Yo, homeslice, I think it was a rhetorical question.

Jim Mashek/The Sun Herald (MCT)