With five games left in the season, and thanks to some heartbreaking letdowns, New Orleans has left itself no room for error. They can’t afford to lose again, which makes the upcoming game against Detroit “a win or stay home” affair.
As always this time of year, the playoff picture is a muddled mosaic, but week-by-week it slowly comes into focus.
We have a better idea of who is going to miss the playoffs, than who the Wild Cards or divisional winners will be at this stage in the season.
With that said, when it comes to the Saints’ playoff aspirations, their future is relatively straightforward.
If they hope to be playing January football, they must win out. PERIOD.
This is a daunting task to contemplate all at once, which is why the Saints must be absolutely and completely focused on their upcoming opponent, the Detroit Lions.
Dec 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions defensive end Jason Jones (91) sacks New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in the third quarter of the game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Essentially, the playoffs have already started for New Orleans.
In the words of Francis Underwood played by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards: “How do you devour a whale? One bite at a time.”
The Lions already have an edge coming into this contest. They last played on Thanksgiving Day, coming away with a dramatic victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
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This means that by the time the Saints take the field against the Lions, Detroit will have had an extra three days to prepare and rest up.
It’s no coincidence that Sean Payton and the Saints employed their best game plan of the year against the Rams coming off a Thursday game the week prior.
Those extra days of preparation make a difference, so trust me when I say Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterback Matt Stafford will have some new wrinkles for the Saints come Sunday.
The Lions are one of the more surprising stories in the NFL this season.
Nov 6, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (15) beats Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) and scores a touchdown to win the game at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Lions won 22-16 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Currently leading the NFC North, every single one of their seven wins has been the result of a 4th quarter comeback. Matt Stafford has elevated his play to be included in the MVP conversation.
However, statistically, the Lions are extremely mediocre.
Offensively, they rank 19th in points per game, and 26th in yards per game. On the defensive side, they rank 15th in points per game, and 15th in yards per game.
The biggest reason they have a winning record is that with the game on the line, they have consistently made the one or two plays that is the difference between winning and losing in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Saints are coming off of their most complete game of the season.
In their dismantling of the Rams, the offense put on an impressive display, thanks to a motivated and passionate Sean Payton. The defense also stepped up, allowing zero points in the second half.
The Saints will need to put together another similar performance this week to stay in the hunt.
Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) sacks Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Rams 49-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
If the Saints lose on Sunday, none of their three remaining divisional tilts will matter.
Nothing creates division and unrest in a locker room more than playing meaningless football games in December.