Through five games, the only remaining drama in the Saints’ regular season appeared to be whether they would get homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
So much for early-October sentiment.
Coming off a 26-20 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday — its second defeat in three outings — New Orleans (6-2) enters by far the toughest stretch of the schedule with just a one-game cushion in the NFC South and no assurance of even a playoff berth at the season’s midpoint.
NFC East leader Dallas arrives at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night. New Orleans then hosts defending NFC champion San Francisco, which has beaten the Saints in their past two meetings, followed by a quick turnaround against archrival Atlanta on a Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.
The task stays tough from there. Next is a trip to Seattle, which has not lost at home since 2011, before the Saints face surging Carolina twice in three weeks during December.
By then, we’ll know if the early-season promise of a 5-0 start has translated into something special or turned into a colossal disappointment.
“You kind of look at the stretch ahead, and it doesn’t get any easier,” quarterback Drew Brees said Wednesday while lamenting the game that got away against the Jets. “It is going to be extremely tough.”
The combined record of the Saints’ first six victims is 18-31. The record of their next seven opponents is 34-25 — and that mark includes the 2-6 Falcons, who had multiple chances to beat New Orleans in the final seconds of the season opener.
“It is almost like a new season begins,” Brees said. “We’ve learned a lot from the first eight games, both good and bad. We know the areas in which we need to improve. We are going to need to see those improvements if we are going to win these games.”
On the surface, the Saints remain solid. They are tied with San Francisco for the second-best record in the NFC, still lead Carolina in the division and rank among the NFL’s top 10 in total offense (seventh) and defense (ninth).
Beneath the surface, the picture is murkier. Yards aren’t always relevant — another team in the top 10 on offense and defense is Houston, which has outgained opponents by 120 yards per game en route to a 2-6 record. The Saints also rank near the bottom of the NFL in rushing (26th) and rushing defense (25th).
“What’s nerve-wracking about it is you’ve got to get that stuff fixed,” tackle Zach Strief said. “Having a chance to win (against the Jets) with all the stuff we did wrong, that won’t happen against some of the teams we’re going to play. You just have to play better against them.”
The sighs of relief when defending NFC South champion Atlanta tanked turned into sounds of concern as Carolina ran off four in a row to get to 5-3. Still, Strief is not exactly panicking.
“The outside perception is that the teams we’ve played aren’t good,” he said. “I have a hard time picking through the defensive lines I’ve played that don’t provide good challenges.”
The challenge for the defense is getting better against the run. The Jets gained 198 yards on 36 carries last Sunday, averaging 5.5 yards a pop. Four of the Saints’ next seven games are against San Francisco, which leads the NFL in rushing, Seattle (fifth) and Carolina (eighth).
“Last game, guys weren’t in their gaps,” outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “If everybody’s in our gaps, we can play with anybody. There were three or four runs that (the Jets’ Chris) Ivory had that just killed us.”
If the Saints shore up that deficiency, Galette likes their chances, regardless of the schedule.
“We’re 6-2 and second in the NFC,” he said “We’re in a good position. It was a tough loss, but we have to get over it immediately. I’m over it. The team’s over it. Fans might not be over it, but you get more feedback from the fans that I do. I just go home and study my playbook.”
Strief pointed out every year had ups and downs, including New Orleans’ Super Bowl championship season in 2009, when it lost its last three regular-season games.
None of the early-season talk about playoffs byes and homefield advantage came from the Saints locker room. Coach Sean Payton scoffs at that type of speculation.
“I’m not sure if it was radio, TV or print after Week 5, (but) I heard discussions about seeding,” he said. “I get it and I understand it, but it is like trying to figure out who is going to win the Belmont at the first turn.
“There is a ton of football here for us and for everyone else in our division, in the conference and throughout the rest of the league.”