Three weeks ago, despite the disheartening loss at Detroit the day before, the Monday morning Saints locker room was positively upbeat because of the feeling that things were not as bleak as the team’s 2-4 record indicated.
And sure enough, the Saints went out and won their next two games.
But on this latest Monday morning after, things were noticeably more subdued.
“We’re running out of mulligans,” said offensive tackle Zach Strief, in his always prescient manner.
Well, no and yes.
No, in that because we haven’t seen a worse division than the NFC South since those in the Italian army during World War II, the team is going to have work hard to be eliminated from playoff contention before Christmas.
Yes, in that the team many felt would be among the elite in the NFL this season and some even picked to be Super Bowl champion has, with the exception of the second half of the Green Bay game, is yet to show that level of play, especially in the closing stages when so many games are won and lost.
Four defeats by a total of nine points, in which the Saints were leading in the fourth quarter of all of them, will sap any team’s confidence that, if and when playoff time does come, things will be different.
Certainly the view from 4-5 is a lot different from 5-4.
Of course, thanks to the league’s rewarding of division champions, the NFC South champion will be at home on the first playoff weekend, no matter how poor its record is.
But right now, do the Saints, should they win the division, look capable of beating one of the NFC’s likely wild card teams — San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas or the Packers — in a playoff game when the stakes are higher and the margin for error thinner?
Even the Mercedes-Benz Superdome isn’t necessarily an overwhelming advantage as the 49ers proved Sunday by starting strong and finishing stronger.
So it’s one-and-done unless the Saints can reverse field.
“We have to, starting with the coaches, look to be able to close out some of those close games when we have that opportunity,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday.
“Sometimes it’s a game of seconds and inches,” Strief said.
Seconds as in Drew Brees spiking the ball at the Niners’ 47 with five of them left in regulation. With no time to run another play and a 64-yard field goal well out of Shayne Graham’s range, the Saints had no option but to go for the Hail Mary to Jimmy Graham, and we know how that worked out.
With two or three more seconds to work with, there would have been time for a sideline pattern to get within Graham’s range. Nothing guaranteed, but still…
Inches as in the distance Thomas Morstead’s punt in overtime went into the end zone for a touchback, putting the 49ers at their 20 instead of in the shadow of their goal line.
With room to work with, San Francisco reached its 40 before punting the Saints back to their 9. Five plays later, Brees fumbled when he was sacked, and you know the rest.
Again, nothing guaranteed, but how much more in the Saints favor would things have been had the Niners had to start from inside their 1?
You can point to a half-dozen other moments in the game that could have changed the final result had they gone the other way.
That’s the way the NFL is set up to be.
Sometimes it’s just the fickle finger of fate, like the touchback.
But sometimes it’s poor decision making, such as trying to force a throw into triple coverage in the end zone at the end of the first half that resulted in an interception that actually brought boos down on Brees.
Brees, to his credit, fell on his sword for that one, pledging to fix his growing propensity for turnovers.
No doubt the other players are of the same mindset about overcoming what is preventing this team from winning close games.
And this Sunday against Cincinnati would be a good place to start.
Of course, the Saints could just wait until December. Since Sept. 28, their final month foes — Chicago, Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay — are a mind-numbing collective 0-15-1 against everyone except each other.
“We are aware of that,” Strief said. “But we’re not trying to be the best team in a bad division.
“We intend to finish 11-5.”
But somehow, it was said with a little less assuredness than before.