New Orleans Saints players know precisely where they stand, having surrendered the control they struggled for weeks to maintain, with nothing guaranteed now beyond two more regular-season games, the first being a Sunday matchup against the Buccaneers (8-7) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
New Orleans (7-8) only can stay alive in the playoff race by beating its NFC South Division-leading rivals Sunday. The regular season will conclude next weekend with a game against the Falcons (7-8) in the Caesars Superdome.
"A have-to-win mentality," center Erik McCoy said. "I mean, you say that every week, it's a have-to-win game, because it's the next game. But, truly, if you want to have any chance at playing in the playoffs, you have to win the last two. So I think that's the mentality and the mode that everyone is in.
"I just coin it as a must-win. Because I want to go to the playoffs, everybody in this building wants to go to the playoffs."
"It's definitely tough, because you look back on the year and the coulda, shoulda, wouldas," tight end Juwan Johnson said. "But at the end of the day, it's like, what can we do from now on? Because if you lose another game, it really doesn't matter at all.
"So I think the biggest thing is winning these next two games, because one thing you don't want to happen is you lose the game, the situation plays out that's in our favor and you end up losing the game. So just winning all the games that we possibly can, which is these next two games, and let the rest handle itself.
"You've got to be in playoff mode, especially these last two games. Because if you lose, you're done. And that's really what it is. It's not like if we lose, then somebody else…no, you lose, you're done. That's the season."
In order to win, the Saints will have to accomplish something – play a well-rounded game – which sparingly has been achieved this season.
"We just haven't been able to put all three phases together consistently enough," Coach Dennis Allen said. "That's been a source of frustration for our football team, because there's been moments where it's looked the way it's supposed to look, and there have been moments when it hasn't.
"I think there are a lot of statistics that we can go through where we'd say, we've done good things. But we haven't finished and we haven't won enough. And I think all of us understand that this is a profession, this is a production-based business. I don't think anybody's trying to skirt that. We've got to do a better job of producing and producing wins."
Allen said he has no doubt the team will approach the games the right way.
"For everybody, when you're in this league every time you get an opportunity to take the field, you need to make sure you're taking advantage of it," he said. "So, we need to go play good football, and we need to get a win and it starts this week against Tampa."
Johnson said that looking in the rear view and reminiscing about what could have been isn't productive now.
"Of course it's frustrating, because you want it to be so good," he said. "We know what we could have been at the start of this year, what the expectations were not from the outside, but from within, and what we thought it was.
"But we are here now, it is what it is right now so the biggest thing, we have to win. No matter what the expectation was going into the season, this is what we are, this is what it is and we have to win. You want to reflect on, 'It could have been this,' but it's not."
NOT THIS WEEK: While Allen said some injured players likely will return to practice this week, he doesn't expect cornerback Marshon Lattimore (ankle) or receiver Michael Thomas (knee) to be among them. Lattimore and Thomas both were placed on injured reserve after sustaining injuries against the Vikings on Nov. 12 and each is eligible to return, but neither has been able to participate in practice.