METAIRIE, La. – Sean Payton figured his players deserved to go into their bye week feeling good about themselves.
So while the coach is taking a hard look at what the Saints could have done differently in a dramatic loss at New England on Sunday, he's also complimenting his players' overall effort during a 5-1 start.
"I like the work ethic, the competitive nature of this team," Payton asserted Monday. "I like it a lot."
The coach said it will probably take his staff and players a couple days to get over their failure to cash in on multiple opportunities to put the Patriots away, only to see Tom Brady pull out his latest game-winning drive.
With no timeouts and 1:13 left, New England marched 70 yards, capped by Brady's pinpoint, 17-yard pass to the back left corner of the end zone, where rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins outleaped cornerback Jabari Greer to make a twisting catch with 5 seconds left in a 30-27 Patriots victory.
Before that, the Saints' defense twice thought they'd thwarted Brady's last, best chance — first with a fourth-down stop and then with an interception.
Both times, however, the Saints' normally prolific offense could not get a first down, and the Patriots had enough timeouts left to get a third chance.
"The overall mood and spirits were good," Payton said of his players as many of them prepared to take the rest of the week off after some conditioning, lifting and film review on Monday. "Obviously, it's a tough loss. And when you do it long enough, they understand that there's going to be some games like that where you're wrestling over one specific play or one sequence of plays."
Payton said he was proud of how his team rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit, and only regretted that his offense couldn't keep Brady off the field in the final minutes.
"We were able to get the stops defensively. We weren't able to get that one first down we needed," Payton said.
Payton also dismissed criticism of his defense's pass coverage on the final touchdown.
"This is distribution-of-credit, assignment-of-blame Monday, so that's just the industry," Payton said. "Tom made a great location throw. The receiver made a real good catch above his head. You can't beat yourself up over that."
After four straight games with 100-plus yards receiving, Jimmy Graham was held without a catch, but Payton brushed aside a question about whether the Patriots provided a blue-print for shutting down the star tight end. Payton said he would only be concerned if every team had a cornerback as well suited to covering Graham as Aqib Talib.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said everyone on offense is questioning what they could have done differently to keep Brady on the sideline. He said Payton seemed to sense how hard his players took loss, which might explain why he didn't heavily criticize his players over the manner in which the late lead was squandered.
"He knows how hard guys fought. He knows the weight of this game, the gravity of this game, how meaningful it was to all of us," Brees said. "At times, when you lose, especially a tough loss like that, you make more of an impact when you're encouraging and very positive.
"I'm sure he would have been more critical had we won that game, saying, 'Hey, there's a few things here that could have gotten us beat.' And in reality, those things did get us beat," Brees continued. "At times, human nature would tell you to do one thing when really you may need to just take a deep breath and do the other. I think after a loss, human nature would tell you to get all riled up and mad and angry and yell. I think cooler heads prevailed and Sean has a great feel for that, to say, 'Man, you guys battled, you played your heart out. It didn't go our way this time but there's going to be many more like this. Let's be ready to win those.'"
Notes: Payton said the Saints will not practice again until next Monday and that the most important thing his players can do in the meantime is rest. ... Payton praised running back Khiry Robinson, who made the roster after coming to training camp as an undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M. Robinson carried seven times for 53 yards and his first-career TD at New England. "He's been explosive, he's been tough, he's been hard-nosed and we will continue to look at his snaps and evaluate how he fits in each game plan," Payton said.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org