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New Orleans Saints never stood a chance without Sean Payton

Vince Lombardi once said, "We never lose, but sometimes the clock runs out on us."

The New Orleans Saints certainly weren't losers this season; they fought through a number of obstacles -- many unprecedented -- with toughness and determination. But the clock has run out on them.

Thursday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons sealed the 5-7 Saints' fate in the NFC South. To make the playoffs now, they'll need to secure a wild-card spot -- which would take a miracle.

Actually, it might take even more than that, because the Saints are not playing like a good team. They have too many problems on defense, too many problems on their offensive line, and, most of all, are making too many costly mistakes.

Can all of these problems be blamed on the fallout from the team's bounty scandal? No, but most are related to the absence of coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the season as part of that fallout.

After I learned in March that Payton wanted to bring in Bill Parcells, his former boss with the Dallas Cowboys, to take his place with the Saints on an interim basis, I wrote that it was a great idea. Replacing Payton with an outsider who had Parcells' presence and command might have been the only way to offset the impact of the suspension.

The coaches who did end up stepping in, assistants Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt, have done the best job they could have, but filling Payton's shoes is not an easy task, especially when it comes to game preparation. What we've seen in New Orleans is that there's a huge difference between being a head coach and just being in charge of the other assistants.

Payton had the ability to oversee the entire operation, ensure that the team played in the style and manner he thought would best help it win, and bring fear to the players. These are the things the Saints miss most.

Never forget, fear always does the work of reason. Vitt and Kromer likely haven't been able to put real fear into the Saints locker room, because they are managing the team -- not leading it. Leaders do the right thing, while managers merely do things right. Without Payton, it must be hard, if not impossible, to know the right thing to do on a weekly basis.

Coaches need coaching. Like players, they need someone above them demanding that they improve and perform their best. Coaching the coaches is a job requirement of the head man, and it's vital to his success.

But coaching the coaches must be especially difficult for an assistant who knows that, in a few weeks or months, he'll be back working alongside the staff he's been tasked with leading. Those circumstances made the situation facing Kromer and Vitt in New Orleans quite daunting, and in reality, few could have handled it.

A head coach in a normal situation might have walked into defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's office and ordered him to pressure less and cut down on the scheme each week. Can you imagine Vitt or Kromer doing that without offending Spagnuolo or over-stepping their boundaries? Can you imagine either man telling offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to use less scat protection and run the ball more? Or telling receivers coaches Carter Sheridan and Henry Ellard to demand more attention to detail from their group? I can't.

Therein lies the difference between a manager and a leader. Payton had no problem being demanding; he embraced confrontation and held everyone accountable for their work. Without him there to monitor things on an hourly basis, attention to detail slips, and games are lost.

Again, this is not meant as an indictment of either Vitt or Kromer. I'm merely attempting to illustrate how difficult it is to replace a head coach.

When Payton returns to the office -- assuming he and the Saints are as close to working out a new contract as general manager Mickey Loomis recently indicated -- the Saints will have their leader back at the helm. They'll be hearing the one voice they need to hear, reminding them what to focus on. Most importantly, they'll have fear in the building again.

Ten thoughts around the NFL

1) Everyone's talking about the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback situation, but few have mentioned how well the Niners' offensive line has played and how dominant it has become. All five starters are physically imposing, looking like they could be power forwards in the NBA, helping both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick succeed. I have yet to evaluate a unit this year that can dominate the line of scrimmage like the 49ers' offensive line, and credit is due to offensive line coach Mike Solari and strength coach Mark Uyeyama.

2) The Indianapolis Colts are just 2-3 on the road, where Andrew Luck has thrown 10 interceptions and just seven passes of 25 yards or more. On Sunday, the Colts visit the Detroit Lions. If the Colts are going to make the playoffs, they must treat this contest like a playoff game, and find a way to be as productive on the road as they are at home. That will start with the offensive line, which must do a better job protecting Luck away from Lucas Oil Stadium.

3) A ton of teams might potentially need a quarterback next season. The Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets all might be searching for a signal-caller in the draft. The problem is, it doesn't seem like there's going to be enough of those to go around. The Eagles and Browns might be forced to give young quarterbacks Nick Foles and Brandon Weeden more time to develop, thanks to this apparent shortage.

4) Since throwing for 352 yards in a Week 6 loss to the Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has not played well at all. The Vikings have gone 2-3 in that span; in two of those contests, Ponder threw for less than 100 yards. This has to make the Vikings front office nervous. Might Ponder not be the long-term answer? Or can his struggles be blamed on a lack of talent around him? Three of the Vikings' final five games are on the road, where Ponder is just 3-8 in his career and 1-4 this season. If Minnesota is to make the playoffs, Ponder will have to play much better.

5) The Houston Texans need to get more pressure from the outside, and the burden for providing it will fall to rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus and soon-to-be free agent Connor Barwin. With the protection always sliding to star defender J.J. Watt, Mercilus and Barwin are left to deal with one-on-one matchups, which they must win if the Texans are to continue playing as much man-to-man in the secondary as they like to.

6) Many believe changes are coming for the San Diego Chargers. Whatever the team does with the coach and general manager positions, the hardest decision will be figuring out if Philip Rivers can ever regain his old Pro Bowl form. Rivers has suffered the most from all of the Chargers' recent player departures, especially up front; he seems to have no confidence that his line will be able to protect him. Can Rivers bounce back after this season, or is he on the downside of his career? That's a tough question to answer accurately right now.

7) Jason Babin's release from the Philadelphia Eagles was shocking on the surface, but in reality, the team knew he was not going to be with them next season. They need the next five games to see what Phillip Hunt, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham can do.

8) If I'm the Pittsburgh Steelers, I'm not playing Ben Roethlisberger until he is really ready. I know the team needs to win to keep its wild-card hopes alive, but an unhealthy Roethlisberger would not last long behind that offensive line. Apparently they agree with me, as Roethlisberger has been ruled out for Sunday's game.

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9) The Seattle Seahawks have to find a way to win a road game. Against the Chicago Bears this week, the matchup could go in Seattle's favor. The Seahawks' defensive line can dominate the Bears' poor offensive unit; if they take control of the game and force turnovers, Seattle might just notch its second road win of the season.

10) I know the New York Jets haven't been playing well, but they could potentially win four of their last five games (at home against the Arizona Cardinals, on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, at home against the San Diego Chargers and on the road against the Buffalo Bills), which might be enough to prevent owner Woody Johnson from making any serious changes. They only way the Jets lose to the Cardinals is if Mark Sanchez turns the ball over and lets Arizona score a bunch on defense; the Cardinals' offense is not going to produce much with rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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