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Saints showcase Super Bowl-caliber defense in loss to Chiefs

There are many things New Orleans can take away from its 32-29 loss to Kansas City.

The most obvious is that the Saints should win the Super Bowl if the Chiefs don't manage to pull off a repeat.

That's how impressive New Orleans looked on defense Sunday afternoon. And that defense is talented enough to take the Saints exactly where they want to go.

We all know this game was supposed to be a highly watchable Super Bowl preview. It fell short of that expectation, largely because New Orleans had to compete with an offense plagued by injuries. The end result was a defeat to a Kansas City team that now is 13-1. There's no shame in that kind of loss, especially when you're playing shorthanded.

The reality was that K.C. was the superior team coming into this contest.

When it ended, it was worth wondering what the end result would've been had the Saints' offense been able to play at the same level as its defense.

When asked about that defensive effort, Saints head coach Sean Payton said, "I was proud of how we competed. We flew around. … We played our hearts out."

It's important to note two critical points at this stage.

One is that the Saints' offense is much better than it showed.

Payton chose to sit star wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was nursing an ankle injury on injured reserve, and another wide receiver, Tre'Quan Smith, limped off the field at the start of the third quarter with an ankle injury of his own. New Orleans literally was relying on practice squad players to be dependable targets for quarterback Drew Brees, who was making his first start after being sidelined for four games with 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung.

The other point is that the Saints' defense is legit.

Dennis Allen's unit had been playing at a high level for some time, but the group presented serious problems for the Chiefs' explosive offense. New Orleans has the speed, depth and physicality to match up with Kansas City. There isn't another team in the league that has been as capable of flustering a quarterback as dangerous as Patrick Mahomes or bottling up Pro Bowl targets like tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

The Saints held Mahomes to just 254 passing yards. They sacked him four times and limited Kelce and Hill to 121 combined receiving yards. The major problem for the Saints was they got almost no help from their offense for long stretches of this contest. The Chiefs wound up running 92 plays and holding the football for an insane 41 minutes and 11 seconds. A defense that plays that hard when it has to be on the field that long -- against the NFL's top-ranked offense -- is certainly championship-caliber.

"I feel like we played hard, but we just have to finish," Saints linebacker Kwon Alexander said. "We have to get more takeaways. I didn't know we were out there that long. We were just having fun and playing fast."

If the Saints do wind up meeting the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, they'll be able to apply plenty of lessons learned from this contest. One is that mistakes hurt you tremendously against a team as tough as Kansas City.

The Saints blew one potential touchdown when linebacker Alex Anzalone couldn’t scoop up a fumbled punt right before halftime (the ball squirted out of the Chiefs end zone and resulted in a safety). They also lost Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan in the second half when officials ejected him for throwing a punch at Chiefs offensive tackle Andrew Wylie.

Anzalone's failure cost New Orleans five points. Chiefs running back Le'Veon Bell scored a touchdown immediately following Jordan's ejection, as he ran right by the defender who replaced Jordan.

When you go 1-for-11 on third-down opportunities and your quarterback is struggling through one of his worst games ever (Brees completed just 15 of 34 passes), you can't beat yourself in critical moments. The Saints did exactly that.

Brees was predictably frustrated by the offense's inability to find a rhythm faster in this game, saying, "You have to find ways. I feel like we've done a great job of that all season long. Next-man-up mentality. A lot of guys being banged up and unavailable for whatever reason. …We came in without Mike and then we lost Tre'Quan midway through, so that was tough. But I felt like the young guys stepped up and did a nice job."

The Saints, now 10-4 on the season, ultimately will see this game for what it was.

They could've played Thomas, but Payton wanted him healthy for the postseason.

Brees obviously looked rusty after such a long layoff, but he'll regain his groove with more playing time.

It's even fair to assume Payton would've utilized backup quarterback Taysom Hill on more designed runs if the Saints hadn't lost their third-string quarterback, Jameis Winston, to a positive COVID-19 test prior to the game.

This loss will sting.

It won't define the Saints' season.

If anything, they just showed that losing a shot at the top seed in the NFC playoff race -- which is firmly in the hands of the Green Bay Packers today -- shouldn't make them less formidable. If this team must play a championship game in Lambeau Field next month, it seems well equipped to handle that challenge.

"Any time you lose, things are going to seem a lot more down than when you watch the tape," Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "Once I watch the tape, I'll definitely be able to see a lot of things you can pull positive things from. But to play this team close and have a shot to win in the end is big. Obviously, we didn't come up with it, but we like our team."

Rankins added that the best quality about this Saints team is its resilience. There are several players who've lived through some heartbreaking playoff losses over the last three years. They know their window for winning a championship with Brees under center won't stay open much longer. There's a real urgency in everything they're doing these days.

This is why it's important to look beyond the final score of Sunday's game. It didn't go the way New Orleans had hoped and it certainly makes their road to a championship that much harder. However, the Saints just gave the defending Super Bowl champions all they could handle with an undermanned offense.

If scoring points is the one thing the Saints have to fix in the near future, then this team really is in position to do great things.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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