Saints keep focus on finishing season strong

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --  Saints running back Mark Ingram tries to elude Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber in the first half of the Saints' 41-0 victory Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints running back Mark Ingram tries to elude Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber in the first half of the Saints' 41-0 victory Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Next year will come in due time.

But to Saints All-Pro guard Jahri Evans, it’s not too late to do something about this season — meaning while making the playoffs would be the equivalent of threading a needle while riding a roller coaster, the team still has a vested interest in winning its remaining two games to finish 8-8, starting with Sunday’s game at Dallas.

“As long as there are games to be played, there are games to be won,” Evans said Monday. “No matter what the situation, you put your best foot forward. It’s never too late to play well.”

The Saints certainly did that Sunday with a 41-0 victory over Tampa Bay. The franchise’s first shutout since 1995 kept the Saints’ playoff hopes alive, but it will require 11 games breaking right this week and next.

The victory snapped a three-game losing streak, the last of which was a 52-27 loss to the New York Giants that interim coach Joe Vitt called “embarrassing.” But Evans said that game had a galvanizing effect.

“What you saw last week exemplified our not letting each other down,” he said. “We could have been moping around and sad over the outcome, but instead we went out there happy to be playing for each other.

“We were really loose in practice and stuff. You just knew we were going to go out there and play well.”

Tampa Bay seemingly came into the game with similar motivation. Despite a three-game losing streak, at 6-7 the Buccaneers were in a better playoff position than the Saints.

But the Bucs, who jumped to a 17-0 lead when the teams met in Tampa in October and were denied a tying touchdown pass on the last play of the game to give the Saints a 35-28 win, showed little intensity.

“I don’t know what happened to them,” Evans said. “Maybe some of their guys tanked it. You wouldn’t think they would. I can’t say.”

And while some players on both teams may have been motivated by individual concerns such as enhancing their value in free agency or solidifying what may be tenuous roster spots with their current team or another, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said he felt it was a collective mindset that prevailed Sunday.

“When I got a chance to talk to the players last Wednesday, I told them that our challenge would to be make the game we played yesterday not our best game,” he said. “Our guys are motivated to get better in order to help our football team win.”

Certainly the defense, which entered the game last in the league in total defense and 30th in points allowed, was in its best form of the season. Not only did the Buccaneers fail to score, but they had only 96 yards in the first half, were 3 of 11 in third-down situations through three quarters and forced five turnovers — four interceptions and one fumble.

But the important thing, end Cameron Jordan said, was the shutout.

“Somewhere in the fourth quarter with around six minutes left, I was jumping on the sidelines thinking this could definitely happen,” he said. “This hasn’t happened to me since high school, where we would get burritos for a goose egg. No burritos this time, but that’s OK.”

And like Evans, Jordan said finishing .500 is a priority, even if it doesn’t net a playoff berth.

“I’d love to break even,” he said. “We need to go to Dallas, get that and then come home and play Cam Newton and Carolina. That’s definitely what it’s about now — playing complete games, which is what we should have been doing all along. It’s nice to see that we are able to capitalize the potential that everybody saw in us, but we should have shown it earlier.”

The Saints’ playoff situation is one that could hardly have been expected of a team that began the season considered a Super Bowl contender, even amid the turmoil the pay-for-performance affair created.

“It’s sort of bittersweet,” Evans said. “We definitely displayed yesterday what we wish we could have done a little earlier in the season. Hopefully we can finish strong and take it into next year.”

Even if next year means a coaching change. According to broadcast reports Sunday, suspended coach Sean Payton and the Saints are “not close” to resolving his voided contract extension. It could result in Payton becoming a free agent after he is reinstated, scheduled for the day after the Super Bowl.

“The guys are just taking it in stride,” Evans said. “We sure don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have confidence he’ll be back next season.

“And if doesn’t happen, we’ll deal with it then. Right now, we’re just concentrating on the Cowboys.”