NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints are one win away from escaping the dreaded curse of 7-9.
Riding a seven-game winning streak, the Saints are 7-2 entering Sunday's noon game against the Washington Redskins (4-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans has not been one win away from eight wins this late in a season since 2013 when the Saints improved to 8-2 on Nov. 17 with a 23-20 home win over San Francisco. That was the last time New Orleans reached the playoffs as it finished 11-5 for second in the NFC South and went on to win 26-24 at Philadelphia in the Wild Card Playoffs before falling at Seattle, 23-15.
Since then ... 7-9 in 2014 with the last win in the season finale on Dec. 28, 7-9 in 2015 with the last win on Jan. 3 in the season finale and 7-9 last season with the last win on Dec. 24 with one game to play in the regular season for the eighth win.
"I think we've learned a lot over the last three or four years," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was 34 the last time the Saints did not go 7-9 and will be 40 in 14 months. He was 31 for about three weeks when the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010.
"Obviously, the three seasons that we were 7-9, I felt like there were some missed opportunities," he said. "I felt like we weren't a very mature team and weren't a team that understood how to win or how to approach the day-to-day. I think we lacked a lot of that, and we've gradually gained that back."
Just in time. Brees is in the last year of his contract, but he's not thinking of next year. The Saints have been preaching "next year" since the first in the most recent string of 7-9s in 2014.
"I told them I'm staying in the moment," Brees said. "I'm just worried about this season and what we can do this season, and all of that stuff will take care of itself."
The Saints lead the NFC South by a half game over Carolina (7-3), which they beat 34-13 at Carolina on Sept. 24 to get to 1-2 on the season. They are tied with Minnesota, which beat visiting New Orleans 29-19 in the season opener, and Los Angeles at 7-2 for the second-best NFC record behind Philadelphia's 8-1 mark.
Remaining on the Saints' schedule are Los Angeles next week, Carolina on Dec. 3 in the Superdome, Atlanta (5-4) on the road on Dec. 7, the New York Jets (4-6) at home on Dec. 17, Atlanta at home on Dec. 24 and the regular season finale at Tampa Bay (3-6) on Dec. 31.
"The ultimate goal of this season was not to be 7-2," Brees said. "The ultimate goal is to continue to put ourselves in position to win the division and go to the playoff and see what happens. I like the track we are on. I know the challenge is only becoming greater as we go along here. I think we're an ascending team."
That is clearly one of the "Stranger Things" about this season. The Saints since 2014 have spent all of their time trying to escape the Upside Down. This is the first season they have been over .500 since 2013.
New Orleans is also winning with defense more than in any season since the 2009 Super Bowl campaign. The Saints are No. 7 in the NFL in total defense and No. 5 in pass defense. Brees, by the way, is only No. 7 in passing yards, a statistic he has been virtually perennially No. 1 or close to it since coming to New Orleans in 2006 along with head coach and offense guru Sean Payton. The new Saints are winning with the run more than at any time in Payton's era as they are No. 3 in the NFL in rushing.
"We've found a bunch of different ways to win and have a lot of guys playing well," Brees said. "We're getting better every week. I don't think we've played our best football."
In the meantime, the Saints have become the hot team. There is already Super Bowl talk. New Orleans is becoming a national team again as in 2009-10.
"The experts will be talking playoffs, Super Bowl," Payton said. "It's the craziest stuff ever. We tune it out and laugh at it. The amount of requests, you name it, absolutely. I have a list on my desk here that would choke you. There are just way too many. Just trying to make sure they understand, here's our weekly schedule. This is the formula. This is the process."
The Saints dealt with that like champions in 2009 and almost again in 2011 when a 36-32 loss at San Francisco in the final seconds took away New Orleans' chance to host the New York Giants for a chance to reach its second Super Bowl in three seasons.
The Super Bowl buzz and the media requests are more fun to deal with than trying to get to 8-8.
"It is better than the alternative. There is a lot of energy," said Payton, who was getting hot in a different way at 0-2 this season as in his seat.
"If we have caught lightning in a bottle, we want to ride this as long as we can," Brees said. "Personally, I think we're only scratching the surface as far as how good we can be. We've obviously weathered some storms here the last few years to get to this point. We're not taking it for granted. We're trying to enjoy it, but also stay in the moment, understand the opportunity ahead of us and realize it doesn't happen all the time."