The New Orleans Saints find themselves trapped in some sort of football limbo from which there seems to be no end.
Not quite bad enough to be condemned to the kind of hell reserved for the truly dreadful teams — I’m thinking of you, Oakland Raiders, despite that win over Kansas City. Not good enough to be a team that is actually feared and respected as a championship threat.
The Saints came into Monday night’s game with the Baltimore Ravens needing this win if for no other reason than the death spiral of a three-game home losing streak at such a critical juncture of the season had to be avoided at all costs.
It was, for most of it, a great game.
There were huge plays, blasts from the past from old adversaries like Joe Morgan for the Saints and Steve Smith Sr. for the Ravens, the former Carolina Panther who showed the Saints that he is, apparently, some kind of immortal vampire. (No truth to the rumor Smith was staying at Anne Rice’s old mansion Sunday night.)
There were colossal mistakes like Mark Ingram’s fumble at the goal line and the ball Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk lost to Pierre Warren at the same spot on the field.
And there were eruptions of emotions, raw and overwhelming, from players like Smith and Kenny Vaccaro, who duked it out on the Ravens sideline after Smith caught yet another big pass against New Orleans.
It was, in a word, the kind of game that “Monday Night Football” is supposed to be but often never is.
And yet for all the wall-thumping, headache-inducing noise, you could still make out the soft undercurrent of “Meh!” under all the dramatic proceedings.
It was the knowledge that even with a 34-27 loss, New Orleans was going to be effectively tied for the top spot in the Quicksand Division known as the NFC South, looking the Atlanta Falcons squarely in the eye as the world rises around them.
It’s inconceivable to reason the Saints can be 4-7 and still tied for first place in the NFC (Going) South with such a lousy record.
Yet here they are, literally the best of a bad lot.
“To be playing for something is important,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But we have to make sure some of the things we did tonight we can build on and correct some of the things we didn’t do well. That said, the unique situation we’re in is where we are. It is what it is.”
But for the Saints, where is here exactly?
The Ravens needed a win to avoid falling to the bottom of the toughest division outside of the SEC West — the AFC North — with a 6-5 record.
A 6-5 record? Do you have any idea how many games the Saints could mail in if they had a 6-5 record at this point?
This isn’t just the worst division in the NFL; this may be the worst division of all time. It’s like the negative image of the SEC West. The way the Arkansas Razorbacks are playing, they would win this division in a walk.
Someone — the Saints, the Falcons, even the Panthers — has to snap out of it and go on a winning streak, right?
But the pillow fight just goes on and on. Atlanta lost Sunday to Cleveland, Tampa Bay lost to Chicago and Carolina was off but lost a charity staring contest to the Charlotte Hornets.
Doesn’t anybody want to win this thing? Anybody? If all this losing keeps up, the NFL is going to import a team with a winning record from another division that doesn’t make the playoffs — the Ravens, perhaps — to take the division, ahem, champion’s place.
And what’s more, the winner of this Division of the Damned will host a playoff game.
How did we get to this point, or more specifically, how did the Saints get here?
The injuries certainly haven’t helped. The starting lineup of the Saints secondary has been patched and re-patched so many times it looks like one of those ransom notes made up of letters cut out of different magazines.
But everyone has to come to grips with attrition. The truth is the Saints secondary has been a sieve all season. Couple that with New Orleans’ pervasive talent for screwing up on offense at the most critical times. We give you Ingram’s fumble and yet another pick-six by Drew Brees, this one an off-kilter throw right in the greedy hands of strong safety Will Hill in the midst of a third quarter that was the iceberg to the Saints’ Titanic.
“At the end of the day, it’s the team that makes the least amount of bad plays (that wins), not the team that makes the most good plays,” Brees said. “On both sides of the ball, we’ve allowed those things to take place that have really cost us.”
But exactly what has losing cost the Saints? It’s certainly not as though the Saints can’t sink — though all of us smart guys in the media gushing over these guys back in training camp basically tried to convince you of that — it’s that they’re propped up by the rusting hulks of the teams beneath them.
You’re left to wonder what we saw in this team back in July. It also makes me wonder what it would be like if the franchise that took 20 years to make the playoffs for the first time gave this state a divisional title that was almost completely joyless.
It would be limbo; that’s what it would be. That’s what it is. It’s not true success. It’s not the grim reality that you’re a complete loser.
It’s something in between that’s strange and not at all pleasant.
And it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.