Official team photos of the New Orleans Saints vs Detroit Lions game on Sunday, October 19, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)
For all the misfortune that has been visited upon the New Orleans Saints this season – whether self-inflicted or opponent-derived – there remains a fact that still should drive New Orleans even after a third gut-wrenching loss this season, on Sunday in Detroit:
The Saints (2-4) remain in the thick of the race in the NFC South Division. No team has run away and hidden from the pack.
Carolina (3-3-1) leads the division, with the Saints holding down second place, just ahead of Atlanta (2-5). Tampa Bay is last at 1-5.
It's the only division in the league with no team above .500, and each team that played on Sunday – the Saints, Panthers and Falcons – lost to Detroit, Green Bay and Baltimore, respectively. The Buccaneers had a bye.
Thus, the Saints continue to control their own destiny. Despite the sting of Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Lions, a game the Saints led 23-10 with 5:24 left before the Lions scored a pair of touchdowns in a 110-second span, New Orleans isn't in any worse position in the division standings today than it was when Sunday began.
That's small consolation for the Saints, who have three-, two- and one-point losses on the ledger this season. But winning the division, and the playoff berth (and home game) that accompany that achievement, remains on the radar.
"We're still right there," fullback Austin Johnson said. "It would've been nice to get that win and move into first place, but we've still got a lot of work to do, a lot of getting better to do. At the end of the day, it's not even close to being over. We've got a long road and I think we'll be able to turn it around."
But while the division standings show that the Saints are nowhere near out of the race, the team isn't keeping one eye on the standings. Both eyes, apparently, are peering inside New Orleans' locker room and on its practice field.
"I think the focus is more internal," Coach Sean Payton said Monday. "It's more on our team. I'm sure guys are aware, we're always aware of who's playing well – there's so much coverage of it. But it's really, the focus, on ourselves."
"It's not about them, it's about us," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "And we've got to do better than that."
Safety Kenny Vaccaro, in fact, was in no mood to accentuate the positive that is the Saints' divisional position.
"After the Bucs game, y'all said the same thing," Vaccaro said. "Y'all are probably going to say that the rest of the year. I'm sure, if Carolina and Atlanta struggle the rest of the year, you're going to be saying the same thing over and over. I'm really not looking into it."
What Vaccaro, and his teammates, were more interested in discussing was the improvement the Saints showed Sunday.
In the loss, New Orleans played its most complete game of the season, on the road and against the NFC North Division-leading Lions (5-2).
The Saints totaled 408 yards and 23 points against a Lions defense that entered the game allowing 271 yards and 13.6 points per game, both fewest in the league. And defensively, the Saints produced a pair of interceptions (equaling their season total for turnovers entering the game) and three sacks (they entered with six).
"I would say this: It's the first game we played this year where I felt like there was a markedly different team from the last game, even in victory versus Tampa, to this game, in how we looked," Payton said. "That's encouraging. And the reason is, all we've talked about is that improvement from week to week. I felt like I saw more, and we saw more in that game, than we had in the prior five with regard to improvement.
"Now, obviously, we're not good enough right now to overcome some of the challenges that took place. I referenced the officiating (on Sunday) and I'm going to leave it at that. But that's not the reason we lost this game. There were a handful of plays that took place and all of a sudden that momentum shifted, and we weren't able to finish.
"But when watching the tape, I'm encouraged with a lot of the improvement that I saw. I thought it was, by far, our best game defensively – we had pressure on the quarterback, three sacks, two turnovers. We had a few too many penalties but two or three of them weren't penalties.
"Offensively, I thought we did a good job with the tempo. We planned on going some no-huddle to tire them out a little bit. I thought that was effective. At the end of the half we got the points on the final drive we needed and then we wanted to start the second half with it, we ended up with a big play, a scoring play."
Payton said he also was encouraged by the kicking game and punt team. Overall, it was enough good work to give him reason to believe the Saints are on the right track.
"More important than any of the overriding topics is, if we continue to make that same progress and improvement, this team will be all right," he said.
"If we continue to play like we did yesterday, and clean up a few of the things, this team is going to be fine."