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New Orleans Saints tackle second straight regular-season elimination game

'This past weekend was a must-win game. This weekend is a must-win game.'


There's a collection of New Orleans Saints players who, until Sunday's 18-10 victory over Carolina in the Caesars Superdome, had no practical concept of what a win-or-go-home regular season game was like.

They'd heard – from outside the walls of the team facility – that this game or that game was a "must win." But in actuality, beginning with the 2017 season and running through 2020, by the time the second-to-last and last regular season games were to be played, New Orleans was competing for its playoff seeding, not it's literal participation.

Which is why Coach Sean Payton didn't refer to regular-season games as "must win" games during that period.

But that's what he did prior to the Carolina game, and the same applies for the upcoming game, when the Saints (8-8) face the Falcons (7-9) on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

New Orleans needs a win, and a loss by San Francisco in its road game against the Rams, in order to reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

"Well, guys will hear me periodically bring up a comment maybe that's made, and I'll say that it isn't a must-win game," Payton said. "I'll always follow that up by bringing a game up we play earlier in the season, that the must-win games always come down to those wins that keep a team's playoff hopes alive or not. When you enter the playoffs, those are must-win games.

"This past weekend (against Carolina) was a must-win game. This weekend (at Atlanta) is a must-win game.

"In other words, prior to that, there's other things that happen, so it's not necessarily a must-win game. They've heard me on the other end say, 'Hey, we're going to play in important games, this is an important game, but don't let anyone tell you it's a must-win game.' So, when these games come up, then we say that, and I think they understand it."

There wasn't a need to say it the previous four seasons.

In 2017, after opening the season with two losses, New Orleans reeled off eight straight wins, then lost and won another three of four, before the playoffs began with a home Wild Card game. In '18, it was a 10-game winning streak after a season-opening loss, then three more victories before the regular-season finale, to secure the top seed in the NFC.

In '19, the Saints split the first two games, won six straight, lost one, then won six of seven to earn their host spot for the Wild Card game. And in '20, they lost two of the first three before winning nine straight, and capped off the regular season with two more wins to again earn home field for the opening round.

This year, New Orleans hasn't been able to rip off streak that would enable it to enter the final two regular-season games with its playoff inclusion secured. But winning three of its last four does have the Saints in position to participate in the tournament if they handle their business and receive an assist from the Rams.

"It is a unique feeling in that sense, that it's the regular season," quarterback Taysom Hill said. "But we've been in these games before.

"Sure, obviously, last week was a must-win situation and we treated that week like it was a playoff game. And this week has more of a playoff feel for us, knowing that, man, if we don't win, we're for sure going home. So the mind-set is the same."

It's a mind-set that the Saints haven't had to adopt, with regard to the regular season, since 2016, when they opened the season with three straight losses, leveled out at 4-4, then lost four of the next five and didn't qualify for the playoffs.

But it's a mind-set that wasn't detrimental for the last game, and that the Saints will need to be beneficial again Sunday.

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