NEW ORLEANS --- As Drew Brees and his Saints teammates walked off the field after their first defeat of a thrilling season, the Louisiana Superdome crowd offered the kind of appreciative applause a pitcher receives after losing a no-hitter in the late innings.
At 13-1, the Saints remain in control of the race for the top overall playoff seed in the NFC. What remains to be seen is whether they'll be playing like the best team in the conference when the postseason begins.
"Certainly we did not play our best game tonight, far from it," Brees said after the Saints' 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night. "Moving forward, we understand what's on the horizon. We know there's a lot of things we need to improve upon right now, but we're just excited to get back on the field and make up for what happened today."
The squad that appeared invincible in a 38-17 dismantling of the New England Patriots last month has looked vulnerable in its past three games.
First came a stunning comeback in a 33-30 overtime win in Washington -- made possible when the Redskins' Shaun Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal attempt that could have iced the game near the end of regulation. In Atlanta, New Orleans needed a pair of late defensive stops to escape with a 26-23 victory.
The Saints fell behind early again Saturday against Dallas, a playoff contender that was good enough to stop the Saints from coming back.
The Cowboys could have put the game away with a drive deep into Saints territory that set up a 24-yard field goal try with 2:19 left. But Nick Folk shanked it, granting Brees his latest chance to march the Saints down the field for a late tying score.
Dallas' defense, which had harassed Brees all night, wasn't going to allow it. Brees was sacked for the fourth time in the game and stripped for the second time by DeMarcus Ware. His third turnover -- Brees also was intercepted in the first half -- ended New Orleans' unbeaten run.
"We had three of four snaps where we just turned a guy loose," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Some troubling trends have emerged for the Saints the past three weeks. With 312 yards passing, Dallas' Tony Romo became the third consecutive quarterback to eclipse the 300-yard mark against New Orleans. And though the Saints averaged 37 points through their first 11 games, their scoring pace has steadily slowed.
"It's not happening the way it should," Brees said.
As perfection began to appear within reach, Brees made it one of his missions to give New Orleans' long-suffering fans the joy of an unbeaten season. He openly acknowledged his disappointment with his club's first loss, but he said he hoped it would somehow help in the long run.
"You've got to be able to take a negative and turn it into a positive," Brees said. "Sometimes you have to go through times like this, some of the heartbreak like this, in order to give you an edge, put that extra chip on your shoulder to make you want to go out and play even better."