Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ--Saints coach Sean Payton confers with quarterback Drew Brees on the sideline in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014.

Four days before the Saints were to host Carolina on Sunday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera emphatically said New Orleans’ NFL team did not need to apologize for the position it found itself in.

That position, of course, was possessing a lackluster 5-7 record while still being tied for first place in the NFC South with Atlanta, ahead of the Panthers (3-8-1) and Tampa Bay (2-10).

Nonetheless, Rivera knew four of the Saints’ defeats this season had been by three or fewer points when he spoke to New Orleans reporters Wednesday. He had seen the Saints thrash the Panthers in Carolina on Oct. 30 by a score of 28-10 after New Orleans held fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton to single-game career lows in completions (10), completion percentage (35.7) and passer rating (39.4).

And he had seen them travel to Pittsburgh last Sunday and vanquish the Steelers in their city for the first time since 1987 after Drew Brees threw five touchdowns and the Saints defense intercepted two passes.

“The other day, looking at the way New Orleans beat Pittsburgh, there is no apology needed,” Rivera said of the Saints’ 35-32 upset win. “The truth of the matter is, if you take them lightly, you’re going to get beat — and I’m not saying that’s what Pittsburgh did, but they beat a very good football team in Pittsburgh.”

Far be it from the Saints to agree with much of what is said by Rivera, whose Panthers began the 2013 season 1-3 but then won 11 of their final 12 games to swipe the division, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye away from a New Orleans team that started 5-0 and had to settle for a wildcard spot.

But, on this point, the Saints are of a similar mind to Rivera.

One of football’s overarching principles is that any team taking advantage of its opportunities is a just victor. Sometimes that means making a stop on a lengthy third-down situation or intercepting passes that hit the defender’s hands. It’s capitalizing on a mismatch on offense at key junctures.

And sometimes, it’s being in a weak division where seven losses in the first 12 games don’t result in disqualification from playoff contention.

That’s precisely what the 2010 Seattle Seahawks had when they won the NFC West with a 7-9 record and earned the right to play at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, an 11-5 wild-card team: an opportunity. The Seahawks seized it, dealing the Saints a 41-36 defeat that remains one of the most traumatic in franchise history.

Now in his sixth season with the Saints, punter Thomas Morstead remembers that cloudy, chilly day in the Emerald City well. After that day, many people stopped talking about how subpar the Seahawks looked after a pair of two-game losing streaks and a three-game losing skid in the regular season, instead praising them as deserving winners with a clean slate.

As it should be, Morstead said, because “it’s really hard to make the playoffs.”

“We’re excited to be in the hunt, and that’s all you can hope for,” Morstead added. “It’s difficult to make it in the playoffs, (and) you don’t care how you get there — the goal is to get there.”

The reality is that the Saints are much more than just in the hunt. Coming off a game in which he scored his first NFL touchdown, Saints receiver Nick Toon agreed the lone thing better than being in postseason contention this late in the year is controlling your playoff hopes.

That’s what the Saints do for the moment, because they would clinch the division by winning their final four games — vs. Carolina, at Chicago (5-8), vs. Atlanta and at Tampa Bay. In that case, they’d be two wins better than the Seahawks that in 2010 eliminated the Saints, who didn’t attract much sympathy outside of New Orleans.

“It’s the way our playoff system is organized,” Toon said. “It’s about being hot at the right time and going out and winning games (when you need to). If you go out and win (when you need to), you’re going to be in the show. That’s what we’re all here to do.”

The one Super Bowl and five division championship banners hanging in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome don’t list the Saints’ regular-season records. A sixth division championship banner, from 2014, wouldn’t either.