If there’s anything the New Orleans Saints dislike about their job as professional football players, it’s the repetitive nature of the media that cover them.
Receiver Marques Colston hasn’t given an on-the-record interview in months, because he feels writers always ask him the same things — and not always in different ways. Tackle Zach Strief frequently tells reporters that he can see the appeal of storylines they are trying to solicit quotes from him on, and then he dismisses those narratives as irrelevant because what matters is the present — not the past and not the future.
Regardless, if the Saints aren’t careful when they visit the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Monday night, many who have been with New Orleans’ NFL franchise since coach Sean Payton took charge in 2006 may be answering some frustratingly familiar questions.
How has another season come to an end — or, in this case, come dangerously close to an end — in defeat at this stadium on the shore of Lake Michigan?
The story of Payton’s Saints tenure can’t be told without presenting Soldier Field as an obstacle his team ultimately didn’t surmount in its formative years. In their first three seasons under Payton, the Saints met the Bears in Chicago once in each of those campaigns, and New Orleans lost all of those encounters by a combined score of 99-63.
The first loss eliminated the Saints from the playoffs during their first-ever NFC title-game appearance. Both in the month of December, the second and third losses knocked the Saints out of contention for a berth to the 2007 and ’08 postseasons, before they won their lone Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season.
As things tend to be years after the fact, the circumstances heading into Monday night’s game aren’t identical to what they once were for the Saints (5-8). A late-season loss to the Bears (5-8) wouldn’t kill the Saints’ playoff hopes this time.
But it would definitely complicate them significantly. The Saints would qualify for the playoffs without depending on the outcomes of games they aren’t involved in if they win at Chicago, vs. Atlanta at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next Sunday and at Tampa Bay on Dec. 28. That’s thanks to the fact that the Saints and the other members of the NFC South — Atlanta (5-9), Carolina (5-8-1) and Tampa Bay (2-12) — are part of an unusually weak division that nonetheless will send its victor to the playoffs.
Still, a loss would take matters out of the Saints’ hands. Carolina was in first place as of Sunday night by percentage points, and losing in Chicago would require New Orleans to win its last two games and the Panthers to drop one of their last two, vs. Cleveland (7-7) and at Atlanta.
Some of the more junior players on the Saints all week stuck to the stereotypical mantra that the Bears game was only the most important one of the season because it was the next on the schedule. Yet their franchise quarterback did not deny this contest was more important than previous ones this year.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Drew Brees said. “We’re playing for a tremendous amount. We couldn’t be playing for more. ... That is what it is: It is a sense of urgency.”
Conceding that, it does not take even a moderately astute observer to realize that the Saints could be entering their showdown with the Bears under better conditions than they are. For one, rain and relatively strong wind are in the forecast, both of which can affect teams who play their home games in a domed stadium. Payton said the team has soaked down footballs with water in practice — especially those being snapped to Brees.
Also, of the many issues that typically plague teams who lose eight of their first 13 games, two stand out for the Saints.
The defense going into the weekend was allowing the second-most yards per game in the NFL (398.7), and it’s difficult to consistently win when that kind of porous unit complements an offense that’s among the most productive in the league at 421 yards per game.
But the offense isn’t without its flaws. While the Saints have only managed to take the ball away from their opponents 13 times, offensive players have turned the ball over on 22 occasions. The Saints’ turnover differential of minus-9 is worse than all but two teams in the NFL.
Yet the Saints had plenty to take confidence in as they prepared for the Bears, who have been eliminated from playoff contention because their division, the NFC North, is stronger than New Orleans’. Although it was on a picturesque October day, they tasted victory in Chicago last year. They’ve won the past two games they played on the road: 28-10 at Carolina on Oct. 30 and 35-32 at Pittsburgh on Nov. 30.
The Bears defense — tied for 28th in the NFL — has numbers that are only moderately better than New Orleans’. Led by quarterback Jay Cutler, Chicago’s offense is middle-of-the-pack as far as yards per game (342.8).
It all could come down to which Saints team shows up in the Windy City. The one that went to Carolina and Pittsburgh probably triumphs in Chicago. The one that lost to San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Carolina in consecutive games in New Orleans this year by a combined score of 129-71 probably doesn’t triumph in Chicago.
How repetitive things are for the Saints on Monday night and beyond that is squarely up to them.