NEW ORLEANS — In the now nearly eight full seasons since Drew Brees chose New Orleans to be the place where he plied his trade, it has been the rare occurrence that the prolific quarterback has been honest about the meaning of a game.
This week, however, there was no need to goad Brees into saying something about the Saints’ pivotal NFC South matchup with Carolina tonight.
“Nah, I think we all know what’s at stake here,” Brees said. “We have four games left. Here we are, tied with Carolina (for first place). We play them two of the next three. We know what’s at stake.”
Rarely have the Saints (9-3) been in this position this late in the season, tied with a division opponent and set to play that opponent in two of the next three games.
The Panthers (9-3), riding an eight-game win streak, are playing with as much confidence as any team in the NFL right now.
That’s thanks largely to a defense that’s allowing just 12 points per game during the stretch and an offense that has turned it over just seven times during the streak.
But while Carolina is riding high, the Saints are coming off one of the worst losses of the Payton Era, a devastating 27-point loss at Seattle that all but handed the NFC No. 1 seed to the Seahawks.
Instead of leading the conference, the Saints are fighting for the No. 2 seed and the division lead now. And if they’re not careful, they could suddenly find themselves traveling to open the playoffs instead of hosting after having a week off.
So, yeah, tonight’s game carries some pretty big significance.
“It’s in the division and we’re pretty much in a dead heat as far as trying to win a division,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Yeah, it’s a big game. You don’t really have to add much sugar to it to know the importance of it.”
The Saints in the past have risen to the occasion. Since losing to Dallas in 2009 in a primetime game on NFL Network, the Saints have won 12 straight primetime home games.
And they’re doing it in convincing fashion, beating opponents by an average of nearly 20 points per game. They’ve already won big in home night games twice this season, beating Miami 38-17 and Dallas 49-17.
Then again, New Orleans had won nine consecutive Monday night games before the Seattle game, when it was held to just 188 total yards.
Saints Coach Sean Payton knows this and isn’t worried about whether his team can recover from the Seattle loss.
“I don’t think it’s a game where you have to worry about whether teams are going to be fired up to play,” Payton said. “I think there is a lot at stake and both teams understand that.”