Vargas: Panthers’ revival makes Sunday a pivotal showdown

Remember when lots of people, including me, thought games against Dallas, San Francisco, at Atlanta and at Seattle between Nov. 10 and Dec. 2 constituted the most daunting stretch of the Saints’ season?

Well, we were wrong. Blame — and commend — the Carolina Panthers for that.

At the end of Oct. 6, the Saints were 5-0 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. Coach Ron Rivera’s Panthers were 1-3 and somehow tied for second in the division, so it seemed New Orleans would cruise to the NFC South title.

But, powered by a defense allowing the league’s fewest points and second-fewest yards, Carolina has won eight straight since then. The Saints have gone 4-3 (3-1 in that daunting four-game stretch) and, with the division all tied up, they host Carolina on Sunday night and visit them Dec. 22.

“Until the season’s over, things can always change, and that’s what they showed,” Saints running back Pierre Thomas said about Carolina. “Just to be where they’re at, you have to give them credit for always battling and never giving up.”

Which has brought the Saints to a crossroads.

It’s a crossroads where we’ll learn whether New Orleans’ nine previous wins were merely exciting afternoons and evenings of football or if they were meaningful steps toward a run at a second Super Bowl title during coach Sean Payton’s regime.

It’s a crossroads where we’ll learn if the Saints’ three losses were setbacks that hardened them for a charge at glory or foretold how the year was always meant to end for this team.

There’s sure been a number of storybook moments for this squad. A last-minute win over Atlanta in the first game of the season, a last-second triumph at Tampa Bay the next week and the first victory in four trips under Payton to Soldier Field powered the five-game winning streak with which New Orleans commenced the year.

Soon came the NFL-record 40 first downs and franchise-record 625 yards in the 49-17 demolition of Dallas.

In the days that followed, Garrett Hartley, who had been missing more field goals than he was making, dialed up his mentor, former Saints kicker John Carney, and asked for advice. Carney told Hartley the same thing he did around the time Hartley kicked the Saints into Super Bowl XLIV almost four years ago: “When it’s coming down to the wire ... just take yourself out of it. You can’t control anything else other than if you’re given the opportunity.”

Well, in the last 7:50 of the game against the 49ers, the Saints gave Hartley three opportunities. He capitalized on all three, including a game-tying kick with 2:06 left and a game-winner as time expired, capping a week in which his team worked out free-agent kickers as many thought he was on the verge of losing his job.

But then on Monday night, the Seattle Seahawks — the class of the NFC and perhaps the NFL at 11-1 — dealt the Saints a 34-7 defeat that served as one of the most lopsided in the Payton era. And now the Saints are gearing up for a must-win game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

New Orleans hasn’t shown anything lately that has convinced me they’ll be able to win at Carolina. The Saints have lost their past three outdoors games on the road, and in each of those — against New England, the New York Jets and the Seahawks — they played progressively worse.

At the Superdome, the Saints have been outstanding on offense (33.2 points and 450.8 yards per game) and defense (giving up just 272.2 yards and 15.8 points per game), but that’s been far from the case elsewhere. On the road, the Saints have been managing just 18.8 points and 341.3 yards per game. The defense is much more penetrable, permitting 22.5 points and 367.5 yards per game.

If the Panthers win at the Superdome, they’ll most likely sweep the Saints and win the NFC South. The Saints would then have to travel for at least the wild-card and divisional rounds of the playoffs and, well, we all know they’ve never won at that stage of the postseason as the visiting team.

We’d be almost assured that the destruction of Dallas, Hartley’s heroics and other such episodes were just pleasant anecdotes coloring a season that at first brimmed with but in the end didn’t fulfill its promise.

“We understand everything that’s on the line on Sunday, and we have to go out here and get this one, man,” safety Roman Harper said. “We’ve definitely got to put the last one behind us and get us a big win to continue to go where we’re able to go.”

Added defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: “We’re at our place. We’re excited about it. Our guys are excited about. I know our town’s excited about it. These are the types of games you play in when you’re going for first place. ... I’m looking forward to it.”