In 2017, it was the “Minneapolis Miracle” in the divisional round of the playoffs. Last season, the sixth-seeded Vikings upset the 13-3 Saints with an overtime win in the wild-card round.
But it’s not really the Vikings (6-8) who are standing in the way again as they head into the Superdome for a Christmas Day rematch (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
The Saints (10-4) need to get themselves right as they try to snap out of their current two-game losing streak to clinch their fourth straight NFC South title. More importantly, they need to figure out how to peak at the right time to finally turn those division titles into a Super Bowl appearance.
“Is that an emphasis? Yes, absolutely,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who returned last week after missing four games due to broken ribs and a punctured lung -- and admittedly needs to regain his "feel and rhythm."
Last season, the Saints’ demise came abruptly in January.
“We were flat and didn’t play well. We played poorly,” coach Sean Payton admitted bluntly.
In the 2018 season, the Saints reached the NFC Championship Game -- and were one infamous non-pass interference call away from the Super Bowl. However, Brees and their dynamic offense began to swoon in the final month of the regular season that year after a torrid start.
Brees had 29 touchdown passes and two interceptions through the first 11 weeks as the Saints averaged a staggering 37.2 points per game. Then Brees threw seven TD passes with five interceptions in his final six starts, including the playoffs (resting in Week 17).
When asked about avoiding the kind of “setbacks” they had in the past two seasons, however, Payton bristled and said the last three years should not be lumped together.
“You’re really talking about last season, right? … I think there’s a little laziness relative to research and saying, ‘Well, they get to the playoffs and they’re one-and-done.’ Not really,” said Payton, who pointed out that they won their first playoff games in both 2017 in 2018 before excruciating last-second losses.
Payton did acknowledge his team has reached the point where it will be judged solely by that “Super Bowl or bust” standard. Players have openly used that phrase since the summer.
“Will it need to be the Super Bowl? Yeah, probably so,” Payton said. “But you know what, that’s a good measuring stick. And that gives you an indication of how organizationally the culture's changed. And we embrace that.”
Payton also acknowledged that figuring out how to peak at the right time is a “great question.”
“Yeah, as a coach, you definitely want that opportunity to where, A) in a perfect world you're healthy, and you're beginning to win to some degree,” Payton said. “There are teams right now in our league that you’d say, ‘Man, that’s a hot team right now.’ Or there are a few teams that have won and all of a sudden have sputtered a little bit. But we’ll turn it around. The key is the week of preparation."
That desire to be healthy at the right time is a big reason why the Saints decided to place receiver Michael Thomas on injured reserve for the final three weeks of the regular season to get his nagging ankle injury as close to “100 percent” as possible.
“That [would be] a tremendous asset for us. And in fairness to him right now, we’ve got a little bit of that luxury,” Payton said of a Saints team that has already clinched a playoff spot and still has an outside chance at the No. 1 seed.
To get the No. 1 seed, the Saints would either need the Green Bay Packers (11-3) to lose their final two games -- or finish in a three-way tie at 12-4 with the Packers and Seattle Seahawks (10-4) as long as Green Bay’s loss comes in Week 17 at Chicago because of conference record.
As a result, Saints players have insisted throughout this short week they will leave the math up to other people while they focus on bouncing back from Sunday’s 32-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and their 27-24 loss at Philadelphia in Week 14.
“Here’s the thing, every season is so different, right? And there are so many factors that go into that,” said Brees, who listed Thomas’ injury, his own injury and COVID-19 issues that have affected key players such as left tackle Terron Armstead and receiver Emmanuel Sanders throughout this season.
“But, at the end of the day, we're only gonna get better week to week, from now until the end of the season, and then going into the playoffs,” Brees said. “The most important factor right now is for us to win and win the division, right? And then continue to kind of build on and ascend going into the playoffs.”
Linebacker Demario Davis, who arrived in 2018, said the Saints need to trust the “process” that has led them to so much success in the past four seasons.
“You have to constantly be fine-tuning. But we have a lot of guys that have been in this position before, that have the experience, that know how to prepare for these games, understand the importance of them,” Davis said. “Of course the results aren't gonna be 100 percent. But you have a much better chance when you have guys that know how to prepare -- and a team that knows how to prepare -- for these types of games.”
Second-year safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson cautioned anyone who is thinking about writing off the Saints after these last two losses.
“I feel like everybody’s overlooking us already,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I feel like everybody feels like we’re gonna come in, our heads down, not energized. S---, that fired us up. We’re ready. ...
“I know everybody’s trying to say we’re playing good [a strong effort against the Chiefs while on the field for 92 snaps]. Well, we need to take it up to another level. Obviously, good didn’t get it done.
“We’re gonna see them again [in the Super Bowl]. We’re gonna be healthy for that game, and we’re gonna be ready to go.”