Saints looking to win out, playoffs or not

Saints guard Jahri Evans acknowledges a measure of regret that
it took so long – probably too long – for New Orleans to resemble
the playoff contender it had been the previous three seasons.

”We knew the talent we had in the locker room and definitely
displayed yesterday. We wish could have done that a little bit
earlier in the season,” Evans said Monday, a day after the Saints
turned in by far their most complete game of the season in a 41-0
rout of NFC South rival Tampa Bay.

”You definitely saw a glimpse of what we were trying to do
going into the season and what we knew we had in this locker room
and hopefully we can keep it going, finish strong and take it into
next year.”

When the Saints kick off at Dallas next Sunday, they will still
be mathematically alive for the last NFC wild card berth, but also
facing exceedingly long odds.

To make the playoffs, the Saints will have to win their last two
games against the Cowboys and at home against Carolina, and need
eight games involving other teams to go their way during the final
two weeks.

Specifically, New Orleans also will need the Cowboys to lose
their season finale against Washington, St. Louis to lose one of
its last two games, and Minnesota, Chicago and the New York Giants
to all lose their final two games.

If it happens, the Saints will finish in a five-way tie at 8-8
and incredibly sneak into the playoffs based on a series of
tiebreakers.

They would welcome that, of course, but they’re certainly not
deluding themselves. Rather, they’re talking about building for
next season as if they’ve already been eliminated.

”It’s sad that it’s a little late in the season” for the
Saints to play their best football, said defensive end Cameron
Jordan, who had a sack, strip and fumble recovery on the same play
against the Buccaneers.

”It’s nice to see we’re capitalizing on the potential that
everybody saw in us this past game, but we should have showed that
earlier.

”Most definitely it’s a pride issue right now,” Jordan added.
”I’d love to break even. We’re 6-8 right now. Two games left. I’d
love to get these last two wins.”

The Saints piled up lopsided wins through much of past three
seasons, which including a Super Bowl title, two divisional titles
and three straight trips to the postseason. The Saints had 13-win
regular seasons in both 2009 and 2011, along with an 11-win run in
2010.

But in the spring of 2012, the Saints became embroiled in
scandal, losing head coach Sean Payton for an entire season in
connection with the NFL’s bounty investigation. General manager
Mickey Loomis got an eight-game ban and assistant head coach Joe
Vitt six games.

While suspensions for two current Saints defensive captains,
linebacker Jon Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, were ultimately
thrown out, their legal effort to overturn their punishment hung
over the franchise all the way through Week 14.

Now the Saints, who won more games than any NFL team from 2009
to 2011, can’t finish better than .500 in the 2012 regular
season.

Still, after their rout of the Buccaneers, an 8-8 finish hardly
seems out of the question.

The Saints’ defense, which allowed 400 yards or more in each of
the first 10 games, has not allowed 400 yards in a game since and
has posted the first shutout of any Saints team since 1995.

”When you get off to the rocky start we did, it’s human nature
and I don’t blame guys one bit to have a little bit of doubt,”
defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. ”These guys have never
given up. … They’ve embraced it, even through some down times,
because certainly in this business it’s all about winning and I
don’t think anybody here feels like we’ve won enough. But after
yesterday, I would hope that there’s a lot more comfort and
confidence.”

The Saints’ offense also looked as if it was back to its old
prolific self, accounting for 447 yards, including 149 on the
ground against Tampa Bay’s No. 1 ranked run defense, which came in
allowing only 78.2 yards per game. Drew Brees threw for 307 yards
and four TDs.

”We’ve got a lot of guys that have a lot of want-to on this
team and have a lot of pride,” Vitt said. ”It was a good team win
and we probably put together four quarters as well as we have all
year long.”

Now the question is whether the Saints can carry it forward
against a Dallas squad in a playoff hunt of its own. As far as
Evans is concerned, New Orleans’ motivation remains high,
regardless of playoff scenarios.

”As long as there are games to be played there are games to be
won,” Evans said. ”It’s never too late to play well.”

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