NEW ORLEANS - In perhaps the worst final 37 minutes ever played by a 13-1 NFL team, the suddenly vincible Saints blew a 17-0 lead, lost to the 2-12 Buccaneers 20-17 in overtime and proved to the Vikings and the rest of the NFC that there are no boogey monsters in the once-magical Superdome.

Losing for the second consecutive week at home, the Saints also left open the possibility that the NFC's road to the Super Bowl will run through the Metrodome, not the Superdome. If the Vikings (11-3) win their last two regular-season games and the Saints lose their finale at Carolina, they both finish 13-3, but the Vikings would get the No. 1 seed based on a better conference record (10-2 vs. 9-3).

"I'm stunned," Saints free safety and former Viking Darren Sharper said. "We thought we could do it [clinch home-field advantage] this week, but if we have to win next week, then that's what the table is set for us to do. If Minnesota loses, we'll take it that way also."

The Vikings play the Bears in Chicago tonight and the Giants at home next week. The Saints, meanwhile, travel to face a Panthers team that thrashed the Vikings (26-7) and the Giants (41-9) by a combined score of 67-16 the past two weeks.

Sharper wasn't the only person stunned Sunday. A whoosh of 0.20-tainted air left the lungs of 70,021 paying customers when Bucs kicker Connor Barth nailed the game-winning 47-yard field goal with 8:06 left in overtime. It was an especially cruel ending, considering the Saints' Garrett Hartley duck-hooked his 37-yard game-winning attempt wide left with 5 seconds left in regulation.

Yeah, that's the same Hartley who had made 21 of 22 attempts in his two NFL seasons before that miss. Yeah, the same Hartley who had caused the Saints to release 21-year veteran kicker John Carney on Tuesday.

"The snap and the hold were great," Hartley said. "I just rushed myself."

And choked like a dog.

Carney, by the way, was on the Saints' sideline at the time. He was rehired Thursday as a kicking consultant. The Saints might want to rethink that one ASAP, considering Hartley's next playoff game will be his first one.

It's amazing how much now seems to be wrong with the Saints when it simply wasn't supposed to feel this way today. Sunday was supposed to be the day that the Saints made the layup and put last week's 24-17 loss to the Cowboys behind them. It was the day the Saints were supposed to reestablish themselves as the favorite in the NFC.

It started out that way, when New Orleans used its first three possessions to take a 17-0 lead. Barth's 34-yard field goal as time expired in the first half seemed harmless until the Saints collapsed in all three phases in the second half and overtime.

The offense opened the second half with three punts and a lost fumble. The defense lived down to its No. 25 ranking against the pass, and was humiliated in overtime when the Bucs won the coin toss and ran the ball 10 consecutive times to set up the winning field goal. And the special teams continued a shaky month, when the Bucs' Michael Spurlock returned a punt 77 yards for the game-tying touchdown with 2:25 left in regulation.

Yeah, the same Michael Spurlock who was out of work until signing with the Bucs on Tuesday for his second stint with the team.

"It felt like they were pushing us around after halftime," Sharper said. "You don't win playoff games that way."

Sharper's ninth interception of the season and 63rd of his career led to the Saints taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

It also enabled him to set an NFL record for interception return yards in a season (376), topping the previous mark of 358 set by Baltimore's Ed Reed in 2004.

But instead of talking about Sharper, Drew Brees' 32-for-37 performance or the Saints' impressive fourth-and-1 stop at their 19-yard line with 4:57 left in regulation, we're talking about how New Orleans is a team wobbling far worse than the Vikings.

The Saints are, after all, 2-2 in December, with a pair of three-point escapes against a beat-up Falcons team and the woeful Redskins in overtime.

"There is," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said, "a lot we've got to clean up."

Gee, ya think?