New Orleans Saints Coach Jim Mora didn't have to think very hard or very long to explain why his team lost to the Washington Redskins, 31-17, yesterday at RFK Stadium.

From a defensive standpoint, he said, "We played very poorly and they played very well offensively. We didn't rush the passer and we didn't cover.

"On third downs it was ridiculous. They must have converted 95 percent of their third-down situations {actually 11 of 15, for 73 percent}. They just completely dominated us, their offense against our defense. And our defense has played pretty well all year."

From an offensive standpoint, he said, "I think we moved the ball pretty well. We threw it as well as we've thrown it in a while, and I thought we protected Steve {Walsh, the quarterback} well. But when we moved the ball down there {to Washington's half of the field}, we had turnovers."

Now for the explanations behind Mora's explanations.

Coming into yesterday's game, the Saints led the NFC with 27 sacks. They got zero yesterday. In fact, Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, said, "I only got knocked down a couple of times. I feel as good as you can feel after a game. We ran a lot of max-protection stuff."

And the Saints responded to those six- and seven-blocker protection schemes with a lot of minimum-rush stuff.

"We went with a four-man rush most of the time," said baffled linebacker Pat Swilling, who usually joined three linemen in chasing Rypien. "They went toe-to-toe inside on our guys in the middle and made a cup. You have to bring some heat off the corner when they do that, do something differently. And we didn't do that all day. . . . But I only play. I don't call the defenses."

Defensive line coach John Pease said the Saints tried blitzes early in the game "and we didn't get there.

"We didn't want to give up plays, so we had to stop. We didn't give up big plays, but we had zero pressure -- no push in the middle, no push outside, no push way outside, no push over, no push under."

That left the Saints' secondary at the mercy of Rypien, who was playing for the first time in seven weeks. He completed 26 of 38 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns. His completion percentage and touchdown total were the Saints' defense season-worsts.

"I felt like we never got on the field today," safety Toi Cook said. "This is one of the most frustrating losses I can remember."

Earnest Byner rushed for 116 yards on 26 carries, becoming the first player to rush 100 yards against the Saints since Green Bay's Brent Fullwood gained 125 in the second game of last season.

"Nobody's supposed to run for 100 yards against us," linebacker Rickey Jackson said.

However, Jackson refused to allow the defense to take all the blame. "The defense played badly, so the Saints lose? To hell with that. This is a team thing. If they score 31, we have to score 32."

That would have been a neat trick, considering the Saints have scored more than 28 points once this season. Walsh completed 23 of 38 passes for 274 yards and was not sacked, but New Orleans committed turnovers on four of five second-half possessions -- on plays that, in order, began from Washington's 34, 27, 13 and 45. The turnovers, of which the Saints have committed 31 this season, helped put them far enough behind that brutish running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward became a useless appendage. On the other hand, New Orleans didn't exactly pound Heyward at the Redskins while it still had the opportunity.

Trailing, 10-7, in the second quarter, the Saints had third down and two from Washington's 19. They had Rueben Mayes run wide right. He lost two yards; a field goal tied the score.

Trailing, 17-10, on the first possession of the second half, they had third and four from Washington's 36. They gave Gill Fenerty his first -- and only -- carry of a chilly day. He lost a fumble for the third time this season.

Then there was Heyward's option pass on second and six from Washington's 27 the next time the Saints had the ball. It was intercepted.

Asked if he felt the Redskins were stopping him, Heyward (13 carries, 57 yards), replied: "No. Not at all. We were successful running the ball, four or five yards a carry. . . . There were times when they did shut down a couple of running plays, but we were still able to run our plays and get the yards that we needed. . . . But {Mora} makes the play selections, so I can't go and say, 'What the hell, why didn't you do this or that?' We just have to become a better team."

And quickly. The Saints (4-6) had an opportunity to tie the 6-4 Redskins and gain a playoff tiebreaker advantage. Instead, they used up all but their last bit of room for failure.

"For us to have a chance," Jackson said, "We can maybe lose one more."