Saints could use their mojo back

It must be something of a rarity in the NFL when a team can clinch the division championship before even playing its first game against its division’s second-place team.

Just don’t say that the NFL schedule makers don’t have a sense of humor.

So the Saints will play Carolina twice in the final three weeks of the season, starting Monday night. Even if it was three times, and the Panthers won all three, they couldn’t do anything about it. The Saints have already hung the banner at the practice facility.

Football decorum will likely prevail and keep that banner out of the Superdome rafters until the season is officially over, but it does bring up a question or three.

What, exactly, are the Saints playing for these last three weeks?

OK, there’s the obvious — they need to stay tied with the Los Angeles Rams to insure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

That alone should insure the starters don’t treat it like a second exhibition season, but it’s hard to work up a snout full of adrenalin to go out there and win one (or three) to stay home.

More importantly, it says here, the Saints need to get their mojo back.

They need to head into the playoffs looking like the seemingly invincible Saints who made it look so easy for most of that 10-game winning streak.

All of sudden, there seems to be some mystery as to the outcome of their games. Good for TV, not so good for momentum.

Better for the Saints when watching them play was like being an Alabama fan — you knew you were better, but it was also uncanny how you knew you’d get every key break and most of the crucial calls in the game.

Lately, not so much.

Never mind that you never know which Cam Newton might show up twice in the next three weeks.

Wouldn’t you like to see the Saints of a month ago again before the playoffs?

One suggestion would be for some of the no-name receivers to step up and take the pressure off Michael Thomas.

The Saints were probably due for the loss to the Cowboys two weeks ago.

The victory, such that it was, last week against lowly Tampa Bay was only a win. A gutsy comeback, yes, but noticeably lacking in style points.

Until Taysom Hill added a blocked punt to his season’s to-do list, the Saints were floundering badly.

That was jump-off point for two entirely different games. It was hard to tell beyond that whether the Saints dominated or Tampa Bay quit.

It seemed like an inevitable comeback more than undue heroics.

Then you remember that 10-game winning streak, the way it all looked then, and it does kind of make you wonder if maybe they peaked too soon.

That would be the knee-jerk reaction.

But history tells us differently.

In 2009 the Saints won their first 13 games — they had the 1972 Miami Dolphins squirming — before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the 14th game.

They were probably due a loss at the time, just as they were two weeks ago when the Cowboys broke up the party.

But that next week of 2009 they looked far worse in losing in overtime to a 2-12 Tampa Bay team.

The bloom seemed to be off what had been a magical season. There was a lot of hand-wringing among the faithful.

Never mind that by the time the final game rolled around at Carolina, the Saints didn’t have anything to play for. They’d clinched all the byes and home-field advantages that were out there.

Still, there was talk they needed to an impressive performance to get their game back on for the playoffs.

It was quite a debate in the state. Nobody could figure out what had happened to the team that started 13-0 and, for a team with such a ramshackle history, it was apparent that Lucy had pulled the ball away from Charlie “Who Dat” Brown once again.

Head coach Sean Payton was so worried about it that he benched quarterback Drew Brees for the final game as a precaution and the Saints went through the motions of a 24-10 loss.

So a team that had been 13-0 limped into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.

Doom and gloom. No momentum.

The talking heads said it was too hard to turn your mojo on and off with a flick of a switch.

So, after a bye week to let the doubts fester further, the Saints then beat the AFC West champion Arizona Cardinals 45-14. A week later Brett Favre served up a timely interception for the Saints to win the NFC championship.

By now, you know where this is headed — all the way to Miami for a Super Bowl victory over the Colts.

So it would be dangerous to overanalyze these last three weeks of the Saints’ regular season.

But it would be encouraging to see them recapture the look and feel they had earlier.


Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

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