I know, I know. I've been away for a while. I had to let the Opponents' Mailbag go for a few weeks. Not because I have a problem speaking with the great fans of our opponents on a weekly basis, mind you, but because the questions - well, they haven't been of the utmost quality lately.
For some reason, the other guys haven't enjoyed my answers. I don't really understand why. C'est la vie.
Anyway, I wrote this week of my worries - brought on by others - that we've let this season die too early in our minds and imaginations. Oh, no, I'm not saying that a playoff miracle is imminent. Since you were too lazy to click on the link, I'll explain.
A season this miserable, this unique, this torturous, should not end with a whimper. Oh, no, ladies and gentlemen, the fact that the Saints are mathematically alive yet functionally dead with two games to play is an indicator of miseries to come - as long as the math works in our favor, heartbreak is still possible.
I elaborate in the post on AWD, but I'll spare your attention spans for now. What I'd like to do instead is take a little trip down memory lane. We cannot appreciate this year's potential for misery without understanding where the bar has been set. And it has been set high, folks.
We'll start less than a year after Hakim Dropped the Ball - that iconic moment when Saints fans everywhere realized that the playoffs could be more than just a one-week extension of the regular season, that point when the playoffs became so much more important.
Since that time, the Saints have missed the playoffs seven times, and almost every miss was of a spectacular nature.
11 months post-Hakim, things were looking up. On December 9, 2001, the Saints traveled to Atlanta and thrashed the Falcons in their own house 28-10. At 7-5, they were in the thick of the playoff race, tied with Tampa Bay (of the NFC Central) for the third wildcard. Three of the final four games were at home.
The Rams beat the Saints by 13 in the Superdome. A road trip to Tampa Bay resulted in a 27-point blowout. The home crowd enjoyed a 40-10 dismantling by Washington in week 16 and a 38-0 shutout at home by the 49ers. Average margin of defeat over the four games was 27 points, and Jim Haslett's Saints had not even yet perfected the art of the late-season collapse.
The 2002 Saints featured the 3rd-best scoring offense in the league that year. As week 15 approached, the defense had not allowed under 20 points all year - but the offense was simply too much for 9 out of 13 teams to handle, and again the Saints found themselves squarely in playoff position.
Daunte Culpepper and the Vikings came to town on December 15. Down by one with 5:30 to play, Aaron Brooks hit Deuce McAllister for a 17-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion made it a 7-point lead. The 12-play, five-minute drive that ensued resulted in a Randy Moss touchdown. The Vikings, being entire dicks, decided to go for two, Culpepper fumbled the snap, and still managed to convert. It left a bad taste.
They weren't done, though. The Bengals were next. The 1-13 Bengals. The 2-13 Bengals. With one game to play, the Saints still had a shot. A win over the Panthers and a Falcons' loss to the Browns, and the Saints were in. The defense allowed only 10 points. A back and forth fourth quarter featured a 1st-and-10 from the Panthers' 30 that resulted in a turnover on downs on the 42; a big defensive stop; a brand new possession beginning in Saints' territory with the Panthers up by 4. A Saints' lineman pointed at the scoreboard from the huddle. The Falcons had lost.
*crowd goes wild*
*Brooks attempts four passes*
*Saints miss playoffs*
The Falcons finished with nine wins, the Saints' win total as of week 14, and made the playoffs.
With two weeks to go, the 7-7 Saints still had hope. Then this happened. Pour something strong and hit the link.
I watched the game with my dad. After the miracle, we spent what felt like half an hour watching the replays while the referees did the same. We were sure it was going to be upheld. Of course, it was, and we celebrated. And made jokes about the old Saints, because the old Saints wouldn't have done something like that. It was beautiful!
Dad: "Whew. Now we have to do overtime?! I need a cigarette first, I'm stepping outside."
Me: "Now hold on, this is the Saints after all, you might want to wait for the extra point!"
2004 was the best. 2004 changed things. 2004 flipped the metaphorical script.
After 12 games the Saints were 4-8 and Tom Benson thought that they played "like a bunch of high school kids."
The Saints won the next four, finishing 8-8 in a tie with the Vikings and Rams for the fifth wildcard. We had beaten the Rams. We had lost to the Vikings. Had the Vikings not lost in week 17 to the Redskins, they would have taken the fifth seed and the Saints would have beaten the Rams in a tiebreaker for the sixth. Had the Rams lost to the Jets - or tied them - in their week 17 overtime game (in which the Jets missed a 53-yarder and the Rams kicked the winner with three minutes left in overtime) the Saints would have taken the bid outright.
No, sir. Instead, the three way tie was won by St. Louis, giving them the five seed. The sixth seed fell to a tie between the Vikings and Saints, and the head-to-head sent us packing. Tiebreakers: they suck.
I think 2007 is recent enough that it's still fresh in our memories. An 0-4 start, a rebound to 7-7 with two games to play. We didn't know it at the time, but 9-7 would have been good enough to make the tournament.
A loss to Donovan McNabb and the Eagles was easily topped by a quick reminder of the franchise's identity in an insult-to-injury fiasco: a second consecutive wintertime beating by the Bears on the road in below-freezing weather. 7-9 wasn't good enough, of course.
That Panthers game. I'll never forget it. A playoff berth was unlikely but still possible going in to week 17. More important than the scoreboard that day, however, was the smartphone.
We wanted the win. We always want the win. But the passing record - oh, a playoff berth lasted one week; we all knew that. The passing record would last forever.
Why can't we have both, football gods? Why? That second half was something surreal. Drunken fans arguing over official yardage counts after the fall of the cellular network somewhere around the middle of the third quarter was, my memory tells me, the highlight of the season. And then...
The fake hail mary thing. Cut left, Lance. You can't let us have this one little thing? All this misery, all these near-misses, you leave us with just one more. 20 yards would have left room to spare. 9-7 wouldn't have gotten us in after all. Mediocrity was our thing, we owned it. That's okay. One chance at witnessing greatness and we missed out by less than 20 yards. Perfectly Saints.
What a run. I have to say, it was fun. And interesting. And full of playoffs.
This season is done, and we all know it. But it's not officially done, not technically. There is still room for heartbreak. There is plenty of room in a season that somehow already topped the ultimate weird and miserable that Haslett and Brooks were able to conjure.
In the next two weeks we will either be forced to accept the recent history of non-playoff-bound Saints teams and embrace it to realize how not-so-damn-bad we have it these days, or - as I dread - we will recognize that whatever emotional brutality we face in the next two weeks is truly special, torturously unique - not just because it sets a new mark, but due to the unnatural height of the bar it somehow cleared.