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Barry Hirstius

Saints Hoping to Avoid a Repeat of 1988

If you're a long-time fan of the New Orleans Saints, then you have to believe that the team should and hopefully will make the Playoffs this season with a double-digit win total of at least 10 or more victories on the year.

But for many Saints fans, they may be unaware that throughout the 97-year history of the NFL (since the League first expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978), there have actually been 20 teams that have posted a record of (10-6) or better but failed to qualify for the Playoffs at the end of the season.

Nine of those teams have done so since 1990 when the current Playoff format increased to include six teams per conference.

Two of those 20 teams finished (11-5) yet didn't make the Playoffs.

The Denver Broncos posted an 11-5 record in 1985 but missed making the Playoffs via tie breakers to the New York Jets and New England Patriots who also posted 11-5 records that season.

The Jets earned the 1st wild-card over Denver based on a better conference record than the Patriots or Broncos. New England got the other wild-card based on a better record among common opponents than the Broncos.

Adding insult to injury for the 11-5 Broncos that season was the additional fact that the (8-8) Cleveland Browns won the AFC Central Division, and made the Playoffs despite having lost 3 more games than Denver did.

The New England Patriots suffered a similar fate in 2008, after QB Tom Brady was lost for the season with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.

Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe

The Patriots rallied around back-up QB Matt Cassel, and finished 11-5 but yet they still missed the Playoffs, while this time around it was the 8-8 San Diego Chargers who won their division (AFC West) and made the post-season with a .500 record.

Although New England had the very same (11-5) record as Miami and Baltimore, they lost out on the division crown to the Dolphins and the 2nd wild-card spot to the Ravens, based on overall conference records.

So what does any of this have to do with the Saints this season, you ask?

Plenty actually, since there is a precedent for the situation that the Saints find themselves in at the moment; as a total of 10 teams in the NFC are still over .500, and 7 of them have eight or more wins.

Among them: the (9-4) Saints, who along with (9-4) Carolina and (8-5) Atlanta, are all three within reach of the NFC South Division title.

As New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson observed yesterday

At (9-4), the Saints are on the "strong side" of the 10 teams vying for six playoff spots — but with so many teams in the mix, no team can afford to slip down the stretch.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

But Saints history teaches us that the Saints have been in a very similar situation once before, and not only "slipped down the stretch", but tumbled down the stairs and busted their ass.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The year was 1988, the 3rd season of the "Jim Mora Era".

Mora of course had led the Saints a year before in 1987 to the team's first EVER winning season and Playoff berth in the team's then-20 year history; guiding them to a (12-3) record which was fueled by the emergence of the vaunted "Dome Patrol" defense.

Unfortunately for the Saints in those days, they were stuck in the same division with the San Francisco 49ers, and their Super Bowl dynasty teams led by head coach Bill Walsh and QB Joe Montana. So in that 1987 season despite winning 12 games, the Saints still were only 2nd in the NFC West Division behind the (13-2) 49ers.

Subsequently the following season in 1988, the Saints were looking to firmly establish themselves as perennial contenders in the NFC and mount a serious challenge for the NFC West crown.

12 games into the season (and not far from where this current 2017 team find themselves at the moment), the Saints were (9-3) and had just STEAMROLLED the defending AFC Champions led by QB John Elway, by a score of 42-0 at the Superdome.

Photo courtesy of The Denver Post

At this point, the Saints appeared to be on "cruise control", and if nothing else was assured of no less than a Playoff berth at the end of the season.

Making things even better: the 49ers were STRUGGLING that year, and at one point, they were (6–5) and in danger of missing the Playoffs altogether.

But in that very same weekend as the Saints beatdown of Denver, the 49ers behind a fired-up Montana, soundly  defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins on ABC Monday Night Football — and suddenly, the "switch had been flipped on" for Bill Walsh and his team.

But the Saints still found themselves with a 2-game lead in the Division over San Francisco and the (7-5) Los Angeles Rams; who after a (4-0) start to their 1988 season, had fallen back to the pack and just dropped their 3rd loss in a row that weekend.

So with 4 games left to play and leading the division by 2 games over both the 49ers and Rams, there was NO WAY that the Saints weren't going to the Playoffs, right???

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Ummmm......WRONG.

Suddenly, a Saints team that had looked great for most of the year, stopped doing the little things, like playing fundamentally sound football as Mora had instilled in his team to do since his arrival prior to the 1986 season.

In Week #13, with 52 seconds left and the Saints leading, 12-10, (and appeared headed for their 10th win of the season) the Giants got the ball on their 49-yard line.

On first down, QB Jeff Rutledge (subbing for an injured Phil Simms) passed 6 yards to Zeke Mowatt. On second down, Rutledge started to scramble, and then threw to a wide-open Stephen Baker on a busted coverage in the Saints secondary, for 33 yards to the Saints' 12.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

On the next three plays, Rutledge fell down. The idea was to run the clock and set up a game-winning field goal. On 4th down, to the dismay of the noisy crowd of 66,526 in the Superdome, Paul McFadden kicked a 35-yard field goal, and the Giants escaped NOLA with a win a game that they should have lost.

The Saints were stunned — and by the time they finally recovered from the mental anguish associated with having blown such a golden opportunity a few weeks later, it was already too late to do anything about it.

The following week on the road at Minnesota, the Saints got DESTROYED by the Vikings at the Metrodome in Minneapolis by a score of 45-3, in a game in which the Saints were dominated much in the very same manner that they had been by the Vikings in the 44-10 loss in the 1987 Wild Card Playoff game at the Superdome the year before.

In Week #15 the (9-5) Saints then met those same (9-5) 49ers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco with the Division lead on the line. But San Francisco was on a roll by this time while the Saints were clearly reeling, and New Orleans got thumped by a score of 30-17.

The win gave the 49ers a season-sweep over the Saints and as a consequence 2 weeks later: gave San Francisco the first tie-breaker (head-to-head) over New Orleans if the teams were to actually finish tied at the end of the season (which is exactly what happened).

Photo courtesy of Al Golub Photography, San Francisco, CA

The (9-6) Saints then had to win their Week #16 regular season finale at the Superdome against the Falcons just to make it into the Playoffs, but were also hoping that the (10-5) 49ers would beat the (9-6) Rams so that their wouldn't be a 3-way tie between the teams all at (10-6).

The reason?

If all 3 teams were to finish at 10-6, the Saints would lose the tie-breaker to both the 49ers (head-to-head) and the Rams (conference record).

The Saints held up their end of the bargain by barely squeaking out a 10-9 win at the Superdome on a late Morten Andersen field goal.

But the Rams — with their season on the line — went into Candlestick Park and whipped the 49ers by a score of 38-16.

The 49ers, Rams, and Saints all finished at (10-6), but the 49ers won the division title with a better division record than the Saints and the Rams; and the Rams got the Wild Card with a better conference record over the Saints.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Ironically once they got in the Playoffs, the 49ers got hot and behind Montana and star WR Jerry Rice ended up winning Super Bowl XXIII over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Rams lost in the Wild Card game at Minnesota to the Vikings.

And the Saints? 

They were stuck at home watching it all unfold on TV, despite a 10-win season.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

It's the only time in the Saints 51-year history that the team won double-digit games and failed to make the Playoffs; and as noted above: they were one of the 20 teams in the League's 97-year history to do it as well.

Now the question will be asked: 

Will such a scenario play itself out again, with the current 2017 Saints team having 3 "winnable games" to end this season?

You'd have to believe that it's very unlikely at this point.

It would almost be shocking if the Saints don't finish at least at (11-5), considering how the final 3 games stack up one behind the other to close out the 2017 regular season schedule.

The Saints currently are a 16-point favorite at home in the Superdome this coming Sunday over the (5-8) Jets; and New York will be without starting QB Josh McCown, who's season ended this past weekend with a broken hand.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Then the following week at home once again inside the Superdome, the Saints will host the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons in their highly-anticipated rematch from their first meeting last week; in a game which the Saints should be very highly motivated to win, after how the events of the first game unfolded.

Then in Week #17 they'll face a (4-9) Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that's essentially just waiting for the season to end.

So suffice it to say, the likelihood that the Saints WON'T make the Playoffs at this point would seem to be a bit of a stretch.

But once again as it always seems to do: Saints history teaches us to NEVER SAY NEVER.

Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

"We just have to focus on ourselves," Saints safety Rafael Bush told Erickson in a one-on-one interview yesterday.

"Whatever they (the other NFC teams in the Playoff race) do on their own time, how they look at the standings or who they've got as their next opponent, that's their business."

Bush is exactly right.

And speaking of "business", it's time for the Saints to take care of their own.......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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