About three weeks ago, I wrote this piece predicting the New Orleans Saints' record through the rest of their 2014 schedule. At that point, the Saints were 2-3 and coming off of their bye week to play the Detroit Lions. A devastating loss to the Lions and two convincing victories against the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers later, I'm not a firm believer in the 4-4 Saints yet.
The reason is simple: I have seen the Sean Payton-led Saints bounce back from a tough start to reach .500 before. Each time however, they proceeded to flounder and finish their season in mediocre fashion.
Allow me to refresh your memory, even though I'm sure you'd rather I didn't.
2007: From 0-4 to 4-4 to 7-9
The Saints started that year 0-4, a shocking development only a year after reaching the 2006 NFC Championship Game. Much like in 2014, expectations had been through the roof prior to the season. However, New Orleans rebounded in impressive fashion, winning their next four games, starting with a resounding 28-17 road-win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Alas, at 4-4 after dismantling the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars 41-24 in the Dome, New Orleans laid a giant pelican egg at home against the 0-8 Saint Louis Rams, losing 29-37. The Saints would then go 3-4 in their last seven games to finish with a lackluster 7-9 record.
2012: From 0-4 to 5-5 to 7-9
Although we all know how many asterisks we can put on the Saints 2012 season, New Orleans fought tooth and nail to get back to .500 after yet another 0-4 start.
With a 2-5 record after seven games, the Saints started a three-game winning streak that included a home-win over the then-powerful Atlanta Falcons, who were undefeated at the time. However, at 5-5 and with a golden opportunity to have a winning record for the first time that season, the Saints lost a 21-31 home-game, ironically to the very San Francisco 49ers that they'll be facing in a few days in the Superdome.
Following that loss to San Francisco, New Orleans went 2-3 in their last five games. At 7-9, the Black and Gold comfortably watched the playoffs from their couch, just like you and me.
So What Will Happen in 2014?
The Saints are saying all the right things: "we know we haven't arrived yet," "we need to stay hungry," and all of the other football cliches you have heard countless times after a team accomplishes something significant. But fighting back to .500 takes a toll on a squad, and it is simply human nature to relax a little bit, even if only subconsciously.
New Orleans' next three games are at home, but they are against the 49ers (4-4), Bengals (5-2-1) and Ravens (5-4), all of whom have the ability to come to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and defeat the home team on their home-turf. It is going to be incumbent on Sean Payton and his coaching staff to keep the team on edge, uncomfortable and 100% focused on the task at end. It probably would help if Payton dusted off old tapes from 2007 and 2012 for his players, when after climbing back from a deep hole, those teams simply couldn't sustain the energy required to finish the season strong.
For what it's worth, my prediction for the Saints' 2014 season was a 7-9 record, one that included a home-loss to the San Francisco 49ers (the Saints upcoming opponent). Obviously things change: New Orleans is clearly playing a better brand of football now than it had been earlier this year. On the other hand, the 49ers have been struggling, most notably on offense, and they are coming off a 10-13 home-loss to those pesky Rams.
Although five of their remaining eight games are at home in the Superdome, I'll believe that these 2014 Saints are different from the 2007 and 2012 editions when I see it. A victory against the San Francisco 49ers would be a start, but with San Francisco's strong defense coming to town on Sunday, I'm not betting on the Black and Gold just yet.