Photos from inside the New Orleans Saints locker room after the win against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday, October 30, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)
When the New Orleans Saints lost three of their first four games this season, the third loss being a 38-17 road setback against Dallas, they had words, but not much tangible evidence, to buoy the notion that they still had time and opportunity to be the team they believed they could be.
Four games later – three of them victories, including a 28-10 road win over Carolina on Thursday – the tangible evidence has begun to show.
The Saints are 4-4 at the midpoint of their season, not the record they envisioned but sufficient for the top spot in the NFC South. Given multiple opportunities to cave and retreat, New Orleans instead has played its best three games in succession: a 24-23 loss in Detroit, a 44-23 home victory over Green Bay, which was riding a four-game winning streak, and the 18-point road victory over a division rival Thursday night.
In the most grueling stretch of its first half – three games in 12 days – New Orleans won two of three games and took control of its path this season.
"When you go through what we've been through – what a lot of teams go through each and every year – it's easy to lay down," left guard Ben Grubbs said, referring to gut-wrenching losses to Atlanta in overtime (37-34), Cleveland (26-24) and Detroit.
""It's easy to say, 'Man, it's just hard. I don't want to exert all this energy and then come up short again,' " he said. "You don't want to put yourself out there, but we did. And we came up with a big win against Green Bay and we came away with our first road win against Carolina. And I do believe this is the start of something for the New Orleans Saints."
Said defensive end Akiem Hicks: "Once your back is against the wall, there's an instinct that you have. It's how you're going to get out of the rut that you're in and how you're going to come back to a place that you want to be. I feel like that's something that our team exudes.
"When we're down, there's a want and a will to get back up. Nobody is satisfied and that's something I really respect about our team. There's no sense of complacency. That's what we were ready to do and we were willing to do it any way possible."
Leading the way, Grubbs said, has been Coach Sean Payton.
Payton has accentuated the positive for much of the first half, and perhaps most after the loss to the Lions. The Saints led most of the game, then saw the Lions rally for two touchdowns in 110 seconds, sandwiching the scores around a costly Saints turnover.
"When you go through something as tough as losing on walk-off field goals, and then losing on the last possession of the game in Detroit, that does something to you," Grubbs said. "It can have a positive effect on you or a negative effect on you.
"One thing Coach Payton has done a great job of was to just continue to encourage us and to tell us that we're really close, we are a good team, we just have to correct the mistakes that we have. I think one of our problems was making the mistakes at the wrong time. You're not going to have a perfect game; that's something that he stressed. But you want to minimize as many mistakes as possible, and we were just making mistakes in crucial parts of the game. And it cost us.
"But he didn't lose hope. We just followed his leadership and the leadership that we have on the team. We believed and I think that was the most important thing."
The belief has resulted in New Orleans' best stretch of the season – its first two-game winning streak and its first regular-season road victory after seven consecutive defeats.
"When Coach Payton speaks to us every Monday after a game, he has done a great job encouraging us and making sure he points out the positives, and not dwelling on the negative," Grubbs said. "Because when you dwell on the negative, you dwell on the past. As long as you're looking toward the future there's hope, and that's what he brought to the table."
Payton said the character of his players and staff is showing through.
"I said this to them: Having been where we've been, and knowing how difficult that is, you refused to go back," Payton said. "Hopefully, (the team is) becoming more resilient, a little bit tougher both mentally and physically."