“The only scenario that we can control is that if we win, we’re in it,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose Saints could still win the NFC South or even miss the playoffs entirely. “That’s all that matters, so we’re not focusing on scenarios of what could happen, what might happen. We do know one thing: if we win, we’re in. So that’s just the goal, just to win this game. All our efforts are focused on this one and we’re treating it like it’s the first round of the playoffs.”
The Saints lost control of their division-title destiny with a loss last Sunday in Carolina, but they can still join the Panthers in the postseason field without any outside help. A win against the Buccaneers will guarantee the Saints an invitation to the dance, and if the Atlanta Falcons manage to upset the Panthers on Sunday, it would also give them a division title and a first-round bye.
Here’s the rub: The Saints could already be in the postseason by the time they kick off on Sunday, if the San Francisco 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale. If the Cardinals win instead, the Saints will have to beat the Buccaneers in order to make the playoffs.
Head Coach Sean Payton said the Saints were able to quickly put the disappointment of their loss to Carolina behind them and have focused on what they expect to be a tough test from the Buccaneers.
“There’s a lot of resolve, a lot of veteran leadership on this team,” said Payton. “They understand there’s that period we talk about all the time after a win or after a loss. After that 24-hour window, it’s on to the next challenge and we understand the importance of this game, I think the preparation – all things considered, it’s a challenging week just with the holidays – but the preparation has been good and the focus has been good.”
The very fact that the Saints don’t have to rely on anyone else to meet their goal of making the playoffs is what is keeping the team loose and focused for Sundays’ regular-season finale.
“The feeling is really optimistic at this point right now,” said Jenkins. “Obviously it was a tough loss and that loss hurt, but now that we’re back to work, we realize that we have the opportunity to accomplish all the goals that we set out to accomplish before the season. Every team during the offseason and training camp has the same goal, and that’s to get to the postseason, because once you get to the postseason, you can write your own destiny. We have the opportunity with a win this week, so we’re feeling really optimistic. We’re going to go to work, put in the work needed and do everything we can do to get a win this week.”
The Saints have played a number of tight, low-scoring games on the road, including last week’s last-minute loss to the Panthers and the game in Tampa in Week Two. At home, however, opponents have to be prepared to keep up in a shootout, because the Saints’ attack is rarely held in check for long in the Superdome. The Buccaneers’ offense has struggled of late, which is another check mark for the Saints’ hopes on paper. Perhaps, however, the element of newness will offer at least some extra challenge for the home team, as Tampa Bay’s offense has changed drastically since Week Two.
“It’s kind of night-and-day,” said Jenkins. “It’s definitely not the same team we played earlier in the season – new quarterback, new running back. You look on special teams and they’ve got a lot of new guys playing. [Mike] Williams, the receiver, is out and they’ve got