And 'down the stretch they come.' The Saints have reached the three-quarter pole of the season in a fashion remarkably similar to the way they did so a year ago.

Now with Sean Payton back in the irons of the contender to win the NFC South, he must decide how he rides the Saints in the last four games of the season to obtain a different finish under different circumstances than the one he brought home last season.

It was game 12 last year in Washington. Game 12 this year in Cincinnati. A year ago -- almost to the day -- Robert Meachem was the fourth quarter hero with a 54-yard touchdown reception. Sunday he was again with the fourth-quarter grab of a 52-yard touchdown strike from Drew Brees. A year ago the Saints prevailed 33-30 on the road in a game they easily could have lost against an inferior opponent.

Sunday they prevailed 34-30 on the road in a game they easily could have lost against an inferior opponent.

A year ago it took one of the most unlikely plays of the season -- Meachem's strip and score of an intercepted pass -- for the Saints to win. In Washington he did so with the stealth and glee of a congressman secreting through an earmark.

For the Redskins it was the 'melt-away in the beltway.'

Sunday it took one of the most unlikely penalties of the year as the Saints enticed a Bengal defensive tackle to move a goose-bump into the neutral zone for them to win 'the shiver by the river.'

In both cases a year apart the Saints hadn't played their best but had found a way -- somehow -- to win. Good teams do that. Great teams don't allow the confidence that 'we can' grow into the arrogance that 'we will.'

A year ago the Saints' luck gave out two games later in a loss to the Cowboys that began a season-ending three-game losing streak. But by then the Saints had built a lead by virtue of a perfect start.

Now as they turn for home the imperfections in losses to the Falcons, Cardinals, and Browns have left the Saints driving to the wire, looking at Atlanta's behind instead of the rest of the NFC looking at theirs.

And that's why the glow of victory in yesterday's post-game locker-room was quickly displaced by the disappointment in how sloppily it was achieved.

With one quarter of the season remaining a year ago, Sean Payton could give his Saints a relatively easy 'hand ride' to the finish line.

With one quarter of this season remaining now, he has to go to the whip, if not to catch the leader, not to be caught himself.

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