A 4-4 record means something considerably different in the NFC South than it does in the West.
The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers meet Sunday at the Superdome sharing the .500 mark, though their disposition probably couldn’t be more different.
The Saints have won back-to-back games and seem to be in good shape with five of their second-half games coming at home, including three straight beginning this week. The rest of the South is mired in tailspins with losing streaks of at least three games, leaving New Orleans alone in first place.
"Things have changed pretty fast," defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. "Sometimes when you’re going through it, not fast enough, but when you come out of it on the other side you say to yourself, ‘Wow, we accomplished that in a few weeks’ time and now we’re in the position that we’re in.’"
The 49ers have dropped two straight to match their 2013 loss total and now find themselves three games behind West-leading Arizona and a game back of Seattle. After last Sunday’s 13-10 home loss to St. Louis, they’re also just a game ahead of the last-place Rams.
"You could point fingers at anybody," safety Eric Reid said. "But that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep our focus on making the playoffs. We have to keep being persistent."
The offensive line and an ensuing trickle down is a good starting point. Center Marcus Martin made his NFL debut after starter Daniel Kilgore was lost for the season, and both approaches on offense have suffered.
"We have all the talent in the world," veteran left tackle Joe Staley said. "We’ve been doing some dumb stuff."
Colin Kaepernick was harassed by an unlikely source in the St. Louis pass rush, which sacked the slippery Kaepernick eight times after managing six in its first seven games. The 49ers have allowed 14 sacks in two games after giving up 13 through the first six.
The offense has averaged 13.5 points in two games and posted season-low yardage totals in each, amounting to 286.5 yards per game, which ranks 26th since the start of Week 7.
Over the last three games, the rushing attack has all but disappeared with 77.0 yards per game (26th) and 3.4 per carry (27th). Frank Gore has been held to 2.7 yards per rush in that time without a 50-yard effort.
Tight end Vernon Davis, who caught 52 passes for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games a season ago, has been categorically absent with an average of 2.7 catches and 26.8 yards in six games.
"The ship didn’t sink, we’re still in it," said Davis, who hasn’t scored since Week 1.
Recent history also doesn’t play into the 49ers’ hands with seven of the last eight regular-season meetings ending in losses, including last year’s 23-20 defeat at the Superdome.
That’s part of the Saints’ 11-game home winning streak, currently second-best in football to New England’s regular-season run of 14. Cincinnati’s 14-game unbeaten streak at home includes a tie.
New Orleans could further pester Kaepernick after totaling 11 sacks in the past three games against Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. It had managed six sacks through five games.
Last week’s defensive performance in a 28-10 win at Carolina might have been the Saints’ best of the season, allowing 231 total yards. Their run defense over the last four games has limited opponents to 80.8 yards, which ranks third in that time.
On offense, tight end Jimmy Graham has rounded into form since a shoulder injury knocked him out of a Week 5 victory over Tampa Bay. He caught all seven passes thrown to him for 83 yards and a TD versus Carolina.
Mark Ingram, meanwhile, became the first Saints running back to string together back-to-back 100-yard rushing games since 2006. He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
"It’s when our offense is at its best," Drew Brees said of the Saints’ running game.
The backfield, already without running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson, must now get by without fullback Austin Johnson (knee), who landed on injured reserve Tuesday.
That seems unlikely to shake Brees, whose 11-0 home mark since the start of last season has been accompanied by a 119.8 rating, tops in football among quarterbacks with more than seven such games.
He’ll also be facing a defensive unit devoid of plenty of big names, though San Francisco could start getting its stars back in weekly succession.
Linebacker Patrick Willis could face New Orleans after missing two games with a toe injury, while Aldon Smith is expected to play immediately after his nine-game suspension ends after this week. Fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman is working his way back from a torn ACL, but remains at least a few weeks away.