JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The last thing the New Orleans Saints wanted to do Sunday was get caught in the same trap they did nearly a year ago.
After playing three hard-fought games to start the regular season, they had what was - on paper anyway - an opportunity to claim a third straight win as a road favorite against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It was a game against a 1-2 Jaguars team that had scored just 29 points in its first three games while trying to find its way with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert making his second start.
All things pointed to a Saints’ win, the kinds of things coaches don’t like to infiltrate their players’ minds.
So all Sean Payton and his coaching staff had to do was remind the Saints how they were in the same position for a Week 5 game last season against the Arizona Cardinals and rookie quarterback Max Hall.
While Hall and the Cardinals didn’t win it as much as the Saints gave it to them, with two fourth-quarter giveaways that were returned for touchdowns, the Cardinals still pulled off the upset.
That loss and another setback to an equally bad Cleveland Browns team cost the Saints a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a postseason game at home, and forced them to take a long trip to Seattle.
“Just look at what we did last year,” Saints defensive end Will Smith said after Sunday’s 23-10 win over the Jaguars. “We lost a couple of games that ultimately cost us the No. 1 seed. We know that when you go into a game in a tough environment, anything can happen. So we had to play strong.”
They did with an offense that scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, and a stifling defense that shut out the Jaguars in the second half and limited them to 105 total yards after halftime.
Yet it wasn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination.
Two turnovers by an offense that also had to settle for three field goals after reaching the red zone in the second half made for a sloppy final 2-1/2 quarters and let the inept Jaguars hang around far too long.
Still, Payton was pleased with his team’s focus and preparation, especially with being able to get a lead for the first time after falling behind in their first three games by 14, 7 and 10 points.
“We have to understand we have to be ready to play our best football,” he said. “We struggled getting a lead early in the season, so that was encouraging today.
“There are some things we still need to clean up and be better at,” Payton added, “some things at the at the end of the game offensively. That’s really my fault, but it was a good win.”
And satisfying after that debacle in Arizona.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how we win,” Smith said of not winning more handily. “That’s what everyone in this locker room fights for, and then you count them up at the end of the season.”