Entering the 12th game of the season in 2014, '15 and '16, the New orleans Saints were 4-7, 4-7 and 5-6, respectively. They weren't mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but there wasn't realistic reason to be overly optimistic about their prospects.
This year, entering Sunday's game against NFC South Division rival Carolina in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints are 8-3 and sit atop the division standings. Unquestionably, the vibe is different because for the first time since '13, when the Saints owned a 9-2 record entering their final five games, the team is playing for something much more than mathematically staying alive.
"It's very exciting," said running back Mark Ingram II, one of the few Saints on this team – along with quarterback Drew Brees, defensive end Cam Jordan, safety Kenny Vaccaro,*left tackle Terron Armstead, tight end Josh Hill, punterT*homas Morstead and right tackle Zach Strief, who currently is on injured reserve – to have been on the 53-man roster in '13.
"It's not every day or every season that you're in this position as a team to control your own destiny," Ingram said. "It's definitely an exciting time. We've just got to continue to improve, continue to get better, not take the moment for granted. Especially to the young players, it's not like this just happens every year. It's something that you've got to take one day at a time, one moment at a time and try to take advantage of the opportunity."
However, Brees said, it's a time to remain level-headed about the situation.
"I'll be honest, it's really just narrowing the focus to one game and still striving to find our best game," Brees said. "Obviously, coming off a loss on the road (26-20 to the Rams in Los Angeles), we want to rally and get back on the winning track. Especially the scenario with the team we are playing being a divisional opponent. They have the same record as us. (We're) both fighting for the same thing. This is a very important game."
Brees said that alone, Sunday's opponent is enough to narrow the focus.
"We've had battles with these guys for many, many years and we've played in a lot of big games against these guys," he said. "They're a team that's used to playing these types of games, I'd say especially over the last few years.
"We're a team that I think has continued to surprise a lot of us who have been here for a while. In regards to the maturity for being as young as we are in some areas, the situations only get bigger as we go along here and it's everybody's responsibility to be able to step up and make this our best week of preparation, and therefore our best game on Sunday."
Given that, the Saints won't take anything for granted. For those who may lean in that direction, linebacker Craig Robertson can offer a cautionary tale.
Robertson played his first four seasons with the Browns, before joining the Saints as an unrestricted free agent last year. The Saints finished 7-9 last year, as did Cleveland in '14. However, the Browns' 7-9 was a lot different that the Saints' 7-9.
"We were 7-4 and kind of had a rockslide to finish it," Robertson said. "So I told the guys, just focus on one game at a time. Our destiny will be our destiny. Whatever we want to make out of this, we will. Just to get in the playoffs is a blessing, because you've got guys still today – like myself – who have never even smelled it yet. So just realize how special this is right now, just to be 8-3 with a chance to go to the postseason.
"Focus on this week. That's the only message that you need. With where we are right now, you've got everybody pulling on you, gassing you up, telling you how good you are, whatever it may be. Just focus on what you've got to do as a player inside and outside the building, and just focus on what you've got to do on the field. Just do your job and execute."