NEW ORLEANS — When New Orleans fell to San Francisco this past January, there was sadness and there was disbelief.
When the NFL released the 2012 schedule in April, there was joy. The Saints would have a chance at revenge.
“It stuck for a long time,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas said this week. “It sucks when it’s so close and you can kind of feel it during the game, that, all right, it’s a tough game but we’re going to win and go to the NFC championship.”
Today, when the Saints (5-5) host the 49ers (7-2-1) at 3:25 p.m. in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it’ll be the first time the two teams have played since the epic NFC divisional game at Candlestick Park.
New Orleans entered that game as hot as any team in the NFL, having demolished opponents by average of 17 points in the final eight weeks of the regular season. In the four games prior to the playoff game, the Saints won games by an average of 44-20.
And, hindsight being 20-20, the Saints would have hosted their second NFC championship game in three seasons because the New York Giants, a team New Orleans had beaten 49-24 earlier in the season, beat Green Bay.
But the playoff game by the bay was different.
“I remember it being an extremely physical game,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. “I remember sitting on the bench and telling Jahri (Evans) it felt like kind of an old school game you’d watch on NFL Films. It was physical. It was hard-hitting. It was emotional. It was tough.”
In spite of five turnovers and in spite of being down to just two running backs, the Saints were in position to win late.
First, New Orleans took a 24-23 lead with 4:02 to play on Darren Sproles’ 44-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees. The 49ers answered when quarterback Alex Smith scored on a 28-yard touchdown run around left end.
Then, with 1:37 to play, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham seemingly doused the hopes of those donning San Francisco red when he caught a pass between 49ers defensive backs and dashed into the end zone for a 66-yard touchdown.
Only, that was enough time for Smith to guide San Francisco down the field for a seven-play, 85-yard game-winning touchdown drive, hitting tight end Vernon Davis in front of New Orleans safety Roman Harper with just nine seconds left to play.
Yet, few inside the Saints’ locker room who were on that team said this week they’re looking for revenge. With New Orleans beginning the season 0-4, losing focus on payback is the last thing the Saints can afford.
“Obviously that hurt last year and that would be an easy way to go,” Saints tight end David Thomas said. “But this game is big enough this year on its own without having to worry about revenge or any of that stuff. You turn the film on and you see it’s a great football team, and this year we’re 5-5 trying to get back above .500, that alone is enough for us to get going.”
And Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt said once Sunday’s game begins, January will be but a distant memory.
“Both teams are going to be prepared,” Vitt said. “Both teams are going to play hard. When that whistle starts on Sunday, all of the stuff that happened a year ago is out the window. You’re thinking about the present and you’re thinking about this game.”
Besides, Brees said, so much has happened between Jan. 14 and today.
“I think for us, just looking at all that’s transpired from the last time we played those guys to now, I just feel like we’ve been through a lot and it’s made us stronger as a unit, as a group and as a team,” Brees said.