NEW ORLEANS - With the playoffs on the line, the 'Aints made their return.

New Orleans all but eliminated itself from playoff contention by falling apart physically and mentally - losing key players to injuries and drawing penalties in crucial situations.

"That was a tough loss for us," coach Sean Payton said after the Saints' 38-23 loss to the Eagles. "You have to credit Philadelphia and Andy Reid and his staff. There wasn't any quit in the team that we played."

The Saints lost three players to injuries in the game, the most notable being cornerback Mike McKenzie, who sprained a knee on the third play from scrimmage, and wide receiver Marques Colston, who suffered a chest contusion. Running back Aaron Stecker missed some time with an ankle injury but returned to finish the game. Reserve running back Jamaal Branch was lost to a broken leg early in the game; before Stecker's return, the Saints were playing with one healthy running back, undrafted free-agent rookie Pierre Thomas.

"You know Mike McKenzie is out, and then Marques Colston is out and we see these guys dropping like flies," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "At the time you don't think about it, you just worry about the guys that you do have and how you are going to put it all together and everything else."

On top of being shorthanded, the Saints shot themselves in the foot with six penalties for 64 yards; the Eagles had four for 29 yards. Several of the flags against the Saints seemed to come when they were in position to gain some momentum.

In the first quarter with the Saints leading, 14-7, cornerback Jason David gave the Eagles a first down when he was flagged for illegal contact downfield. It came on a play when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was pressured into a bad throw by a blitz up the middle.

The Saints suffered another crucial defensive miscue after their offense failed to convert on a fourth-and-goal, giving Philadelphia the ball on its own 2-yard line. With McNabb throwing from deep in his end zone, defensive end Will Smith hit him late, extending a 5-yard gain to a 20-yard gain with a roughing-the-passer penalty. The Eagles scored touchdowns on both of those drives.

"When the ball was on the 6-inch line, I told our guys that we were going to run this thing in," Payton said. "We weren't able to punch it in. That was a tough sequence, with us not getting it in, and the drive they put together seemed like it lasted forever. Those are critical moments of the game that you look back on. We had our opportunities, but we weren't able to make it."

The fourth quarter saw the Saints' comeback effort fall short as the Eagles' defense limited New Orleans to 52 yards of total offense and two field goals. Saints wide receiver David Patten said the injuries are not an excuse, but they clearly hurt the team.

"It [the Eagles' defense] didn't change at all," Patten said. "We just didn't make plays. Bottom line is that sometimes you're going to lose key players and the next man has to step up, and we didn't do that today. Whenever you lose your No. 1 receiver [Colston], your offense is going to suffer some. You can try to pick up the slack, but he's not the No. 1 guy for nothing." *