OAKLAND, Calif. — Now that the New Orleans Saints have left their 0-4 start in the dust, the last thing they can afford to do is take a step back.
Then again, they know they can’t look too far ahead.
Suddenly on the fringe of the NFC wild-card hunt after winning four of their past five games, the Saints (4-5) will be trying to take advantage of the momentum they’ve created against the Oakland Raiders (3-6) at 3:05 p.m. Sunday in O.co Coliseum (Fox).
Even that’s a tricky situation under the circumstances they found themselves in earlier this season, said interim coach Joe Vitt. There’s no time, he said, to look around and feel good about what they’ve done yet.
“The only people I know that talk about the rearview mirror and what we accomplished are you guys (media),” Vitt said. “It’s about the Raiders. We are preparing to play a game on Sunday. We’re not looking in the rearview mirror and we’re not looking over the fender at anything down the road.”
To this point, the Saints have done just that.
Since they were 0-4 on the morning of Oct. 1, one day after a heartbreaking 28-27 road loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Saints have been trying to climb out of the giant hole they dug for themselves.
Another win Sunday would get them back to .500, which they were confident of doing despite the horrific start.
“We had no choice. … We had no choice but to turn it around,” said Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod. “It’s not a good feeling when you come into the locker room week-in and week-out and you don’t win a game and you can’t be joyful with your teammates the way you know how to be.
“Honestly, that’s what we all wanted. When we got that first win it was like, ‘We have got to get back here because it feels too good to win.’ With all the hard work you put in, you just want to see your team be successful.”
After their only hiccup since the first month of the season, a 34-14 loss at Denver, the Saints have been eyeing the .500 mark — which they feel can be a launch point for a final six-game push.
Two wins in seven days, including an emotional 31-27 victory over the previously-unbeaten Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, set them up to get where they want to be — for now, anyway.
“You can’t look down the road at who you’re playing in December and the ‘what-ifs’ or ‘if they play this,’” said Vitt. “You’ll drive yourself crazy. The only thing that we can control is this week.”
“It’s still very much head down, nose to the grindstone, focused on each week — one at a time,” quarterback Drew Brees said of the team’s mission. “This is the most important game of the season because it’s the next game, and it’s the game that could (get) us back to .500.”
With the Saints on a bit of a roll, it appears that the Raiders are showing up on the schedule at just the right time.
After a 3-4 start under first-year coach Dennis Allen, a member of Sean Payton’s Saints’ staff from 2006-10, the Raiders have been decimated by injuries.
Their top two running backs — Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson — will be out Sunday with ankle injuries and former All-Pro defensive tackle Richard Seymour won’t play because of knee and hamstring issues.
Seymour’s absence is particularly big considering the Raiders, who are coming off a 55-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, have given up 97 points in their last two games.
“The way I look at it is you can’t hardly turn on last week’s film because they have a bunch of guys hurt and have a bunch of tough circumstances they’re working through,” Brees said. “Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. It was just one of those games.”
Brees pointed out the Raiders defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-31, and had the Falcons on the ropes on the road before falling, 23-20.
Like the Saints earlier this season, the Raiders are trying to get things figured out.
“There is a tremendous amount of urgency and it started with Coach Allen after our loss to Baltimore,” Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer. “We understand where we are and the point of the season we’re in.
“We understand what we’re up against, a very hot team in a very similar situation.”
At least the Saints are going the other way and have the chance to take another step toward respectability.
“To be able to climb ourselves out of this hole is something we’re excited about,” said Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, who broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone to preserve a late four-point lead last week. “I know we’re grateful to have this opportunity.”
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