Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians congratulates quarterback Tom Brady (12) after a touchdown pass to wide receiver Scott Miller (10) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians congratulates quarterback Tom Brady (12) after a touchdown pass to wide receiver Scott Miller (10) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
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“We were flat.”

Whenever you hear that phrase from NFL players or coaches during the stretch run, the proper reaction is to shake your head. There's no excuse for not being ready at this point of the schedule.

Yet we've seen it a bunch of times in the last few weeks. On Sunday, the Saints were the latest to bite the bit, falling at Philadelphia 24-21. New Orleans held the top seed in the NFC heading to Philly, and the Eagles were in such a severe tailspin they benched their struggling franchise quarterback for a raw rookie.

“This league is too good, regardless of who you’re playing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We have to be better and do a better job, and that starts with me. I felt we were flat. In the end, we rushed for about 70 yards and got sacked five times. They rushed for 250 yards. We miss a field goal; they make a field goal.

"Overall, you have to tip your hat to Philadelphia. They deserved to win today.”

Had New Orleans showed up with the sort of tenacity it displayed in winning nine in a row, it still would lead the conference standings instead of Green Bay. With only one bye in each conference's playoffs, it's a big deal.

“The biggest thing is we didn’t execute early, so it’s hard to generate energy. It’s hard to generate momentum when you’re not playing well and that leads to looking flat,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

The Seahawks went through the same torture last week in their loss to the Giants. They took it out on the Jets — doesn't everyone? — while making it even more apparent that they didn't bring their best against New York's other team in Week 13.

“We took on the challenge, kept our heads down to just stay focused on what we need to do and our execution,” Russell Wilson said after a 40-3 romp. “It was a great day today.”

Great days are what the top contenders are expected to deliver. While that's difficult for 16 games, losing to opponents you clearly are better than and have more incentive to win against is bad enough. Doing so because you were ill-prepared or inattentive — “We were flat” — is inexcusable.

Maybe in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, we should be more understanding. Nothing has been normal, from the record-setting paces of some dynamic rookies to the Tom Brady-less Patriots staring at a losing record. Routines have been disrupted since March. Schedule juggling has taken place, impacting everything from travel plans to TV broadcasts. Clubs regularly have been undermanned.

But everybody is dealing with that, though the Titans, Ravens and Steelers have been affected most. And all three of them have had their relative no-shows.

Tennessee was absent for the first half of a big matchup with Cleveland in Week 13. Baltimore had nothing for the sloppy conditions in New England last month. The Steelers saw their spotless record disintegrate at home against Washington, which previously hadn't come within two TDs of beating a team with a winning record.

As we move into the final three weeks of the schedule, with several close races in the divisions or in the AFC and NFC overall, it is incumbent upon the contenders to bring something to the field that should never be left behind: their `A' game.

“I was asked early this week about our identity … I think we just showed it,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said after a 26-14 victory over Minnesota. Arians' team has had its share of flatter performances this season, even with Brady on board.

“We can do any damn thing we want to do,” Arians added.

Perhaps. What Tampa Bay and all of the other likely playoff contenders must remember is that the so-called also-rans can make things very uncomfortable when given the opportunity.

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