Last Modified: Saturday, October 13, 2012 2:11 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether one solitary victory can be a season-transforming catalyst, as Drew Brees and the Saints would like to believe, remains to be seen.
All Brees and Co. can promise for now is that they'll return from a much needed bye week refreshed, more confident and determined not to throw in the towel on a 2012 campaign that was marred by scandal before it even began, and which appeared doomed after an 0-4 start.
"We got this first win," Brees said in reference to a 31-24 triumph over San Diego last weekend. "It's the best we've played. We've steadily improved each and every week. Even though some of those earlier games didn't result in wins, we feel like we're progressing the way we want to.
"We're a little banged up," Brees added, "so let's get some guys healthy, let's regroup and let's come back off this bye ready to get on a roll here."
Suspended head coach Sean Payton, who fancies himself a Bill Parcells disciple, sometimes borrowed his mentor's common refrain: "You are what your record says you are."
If that's the case, then the Saints, now 1-4 in the wake of the upheaval they endured from the NFL's bounty probe, are but a shadow of what they were the past three seasons, which included a Super Bowl victory, two division titles and three playoff appearances.
There's nothing Payton, suspended the whole season, can do to turn things around. And New Orleans still must play one more game — at Tampa Bay in Week 7 — before assistant head coach Joe Vitt returns from his suspension. General manager Mickey Loomis will return for the final eight games.
Still, the Saints argue that they've been competitive since Week 1, when they lost by eight points to Washington. They also lost by eight at Carolina, then by three in overtime to Kansas City (after blowing an 18-point, second-half lead), then by a single point at Green Bay after missing a late field goal that could have given them the lead.
With all four losses coming by single digits, there seemed to be consensus at Saints headquarters that their first win would be a season-turning moment.
"When you get in a situation that we've been in where we've been in games and not been able to close them, it affects your confidence more than anything. You question, 'Are we going to find a way?" said right tackle Zach Strief, an offensive captain.
Strief said the triumph over the Chargers "gives guys a lot of confidence going into a bye week, saying, 'Look, we're going to get rested up, we're going to make a run and we're going to find ways to win these games at the end.' That will be the focus for the rest of the season, is closing these games out."
Making the playoffs after an 0-4 start is not unprecedented. San Diego did it in 1992.
On offense, the Saints appear to have the players they need to remain competitive, starting with Brees, the leader of a passing game that ranked No. 1 in the NFL heading into Week 6. That side of the ball still has issues though; New Orleans ranks 28th in rushing, averaging 75 yards per game.
Bigger problems reside on defense under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Saints have allowed an average of 456 yards, which not only ranks last in the NFL but is 103 yards per game worse than the league average.
Despite those figures, Saints defenders say they're gaining confidence as they continue to adjust to their new scheme, and point to their five sacks, fumble recovery and interception in last weekend's win as evidence.
"We just needed that first win," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We are going into this bye week ready to go on a run. We know we have guys all over the place that can make plays."
Safety Roman Harper, who made last weekend's interception on a pass tipped by Jenkins, said the Saints are not in denial about needing to improve, but are confident in their ability to keep winning.
"We still have very much a losing record and a long way to go. There's no reason for anyone to be satisfied," Harper said. "The most frustrating thing about the last month is I've seen this team play worse in the past and win games. We've played some decent ball at times, but we just haven't been able to win games.
Harper took no small measure of pride in the fact that the defense was the unit which sealed the team's first victory on end Martez Wilson's strip of quarterback Philip Rivers and recovery in the final minutes.
"To win it defensively in the 2-minute drill and not have to have the offense bail us out, that's positive for the defense," Harper said. "Mentally, from here on out, we know we can finish the game."
It appears, however, that the schedule only gets tougher.
The combined record of New Orleans' first five opponents was 9-16, and those teams went 5-15 against everyone else.
The remaining schedule includes two games against Atlanta (5-0), and one game each against San Francisco (4-1), Philadelphia (3-2) and the New York Giants (3-2).
There is also the possibility that starting defensive end Will Smith will have to serve his four-game suspension in the bounty investigation this season if his appeal options run out, unsuccessfully, in the next few weeks.
Yet interim head coach Aaron Kromer, who has one game left in charge of the staff before Vitt's return, said he is confident in the Saints' ability to meet the challenges ahead after witnessing unceasing effort and constant improvement during a difficult and frustrating start to the season.
"It just goes to show the character in the room. It goes to show the resiliency of guys. They continue to fight and they're going to keep that going," Kromer said. "In no shape or form are we happy that we have only one win right now. We have to carry this momentum over to getting another win and then another."