"Bring the wood."
Do you remember that? If you've been a Saints fan longer than four years, you certainly do. The date was January 16th, 2010 and the 13-3 New Orleans Saints had a divisional playoffs date with the Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals in the then-Louisiana Superdome.
After starting the season 13-0, the NFC top-seeded Saints had their mind set on finishing the 2009-2010 regular season unbeaten and openly admitted that they would try to go after the hallowed record held by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who won the Superbowl that year while going undefeated for the entire season.
However, something went wrong; after 13 straight wins, the Saints proceeded to lose their last three games of the year, to the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers respectively. Although they still finished the season as the number one seed in the NFC, New Orleans went into the bye week with a sour taste in its mouth.
Before the Saints had played their first playoff game that year, pundits and fans alike thought their dream season had already ended. Football historians and experts promptly noted the fact that no team had ever lost its last three regular season games and gone on to win the Superbowl. In other words, a Saints team that had been great all season long had lost the football war without even fighting a single battle on the field.
But then, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton brought the wood. Yes, literally. A master at motivational tactics (many of which he credits his mentor Bill Parcells for), Payton had heard all the talk about how his team nothing but a bunch of finesse football artists. They had peaked too early. They were soft. They had been pushed around by the fierce pass rush of the Cowboys in the Saturday night game that had ruined their unblemished season.
When the Saints players arrived in the locker room prior to their matchup with the Arizona Cardinals on January 16th, each of them found a black baseball bat in his locker. Each bat read in gold letters: "bring the wood." The message was loud and clear: be the more physical team, be the harder-hitting team and silence the naysayers with a strong win.
The ploy somehow worked: the Saints came out that afternoon and earned a trip to the 2009 NFC Championship by demolishing the confident Arizona Cardinals 45-14. They did so while displaying a rough and tough style of play rarely seen in the Big Easy.
After getting shellacked 34-7 by the Seattle Seahawks last Monday night, the New Orleans Saints once again are hearing a familiar refrain: they're soft and they have no shot.
They have no shot at ever beating the almighty Seattle Seahawks, certainly not if they have to go back to the unfriendly confines of Century Link Field for a potential NFC championship game in Seattle. Heck, we're getting ahead of ourselves: they don't even have a shot at beating the physical Carolina Panthers who are coming into the Superdome next Sunday night, riding an eight-game winning streak.
On Sunday night, the stakes will be as high as ever in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers (9-3) and the Saints (9-3) are tied atop the NFC South, although New Orleans currently holds most of the tiebreakers. However, whoever wins the first of two games between the rival teams with not only have a one-game lead in the division, they will also gain a significant psychological advantage over the other, with the second matchup taking place in Charlotte just two weeks after Sunday.
In a time where his team must be fighting not only the outside doubters but its own uncertainties, Sean Payton needs to bring back the bats. Should they be painted white, black and blue to remind them of their future opponent? Should they say "Lower the boom" this time? It doesn't matter. Next Sunday, if they want to win, New Orleans will need to hit back; early and often.
The Panthers are one of the toughest teams in the National Football League, on both sides of the ball. After seeing how the Seahawks manhandled New Orleans in Seattle, there is little doubt that Carolina will be looking to use the same strategy: hit them in the mouth and see whether or not the Saints will have the ability to respond.
On Sunday, Payton and his team will be looking to show the NFL world and perhaps prove to themselves that they have what it takes to do so, both mentally and physically. A mere few weeks ago, the Saints' lead in the NFC South seemed unsurmountable. Another setback and there is a good chance they'll be trying to win their first ever road-playoff game on Wild Card weekend early next year.