It would be more than fair to say that the New Orleans Saints are very well aware of what will be at stake in just a few short hours from now when they face their NFC South Division rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at a wet and rainy Raymond James Stadium in southwestern Florida.
A win today by the Black and Gold over the Bucs would not only clinch a spot in the NFL Playoffs and give them their first-ever back-to-back division titles in the franchise’s entire 52-year history, but it also would allow them to keep pace for the chance at earning home-field advantage throughout the post-season — a fact not entirely lost by Saints head coach Sean Payton.
“I think the most important thing is this team in front of us, this game in front of us, and finding a way to get to 11 (wins) period,” Payton told reporters on Thursday. “Let’s get to 11. And they’re all smart enough to know that, hey, you’re chasing other things that can enhance your possible opportunities down the road.”
(10-2) New Orleans can not only clinch the NFC South title by winning today, but can also do so if (6-6) Carolina loses to or finishes in a tie with the Cleveland Browns.
But they also need to just keep on winning games in general; if they have any intentions on keeping up with the team ahead of them in the chase for the #1 overall Playoff seed in the NFC: the (11-1) Los Angeles Rams.
“Yeah, the bottom line is we control our destiny right now,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said during that same open media session with reporters. “We win this game, we win the division and that’s the first step, first goal that we set for ourselves this season, was to accomplish that and then we’ll worry about the next goal. But that’s significant.”
You could even say (for a lack of a better term at 4 a.m. in the morning while this article is being written) that for the Saints and their always-faithful supporters today, reaching the number 11 would be pure Heaven for an organization and fan-base with Super Bowl aspirations.
New Orleans needs that 11th win to remain ahead of L.A., who can earn the top seed just so long as they remain ahead of the Saints — who they lost to back in Week #9 at the Superdome. That victory was a critical one for the Black and Gold because it gave them the 1st tie-breaker in any playoff scenario: head-to-head competition.
Los Angeles plays the (8-4) Chicago Bears tonight in the Windy City, who are the current #3 seed and might just be a slight favorite thanks to their tough defense and the possibility of bad weather, which could negatively impact the high-powered Rams offensive attack.
As it is: the Rams-Bears game tonight isn;t the only game that Saints fans need to keep an eye on.
There are two other games this weekend could ultimately could have an effect on the Saints’ likely path in the upcoming NFL Playoffs: the Cowboys vs. the Eagles, and the Seahawks vs. the Vikings.
Dallas can strengthen its hold on the #4 Playoff seed by beating Philly later on today at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The (7-5) Cowboys have beaten the (6-6) Eagles once already this season, and a win at home today would give them a sweep of the defending World Champs from the “City of Brotherly Love”.
But Philadelphia — whom the Black and Gold demolished 48-7 at the Superdome a few games back in Week #11 — could throw the entire NFC East Division completely out of whack by beating those trash-talking Cowboys.
Then there’s one more game for Who Dats to pay close attention to as well, but tomorrow night instead of today.
(7-5) Seattle and (6-5-1) Minnesota play each other tomorrow night on ESPN Monday Night Football, in a game that’s as every bit as critical to the overall NFL playoff race as the one tonight between the Rams and the Bears.
The winner of that game tomorrow night will likely gain the inside track for the #5 seed, while the loser could see their Playoff hopes fade away into sudden obscurity.
The Saints possibly could end up facing any one of these teams in the Playoffs, so keeping watch on those variety of match-ups today and tomorrow night becomes necessary for the Saints and their fans.
However, first thing’s first; and it all starts in just a few more short hours from now at a wet and rainy Raymond James Stadium.