METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints (11-5) have accepted their fate as a sixth seed.
But they certainly don’t feel like underdogs heading into the playoffs -- or specifically heading into their opening game at the No. 3 seed Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) on Saturday night.
Especially not the core of 10 Saints veterans who will be making their fourth trip to the playoffs in the past five years.
“No, no. We don’t view it as (being) an underdog. If we was a six seed, if we was a first seed, we’re gonna come at these playoffs the same way,” Saints running back Pierre Thomas said. “Being the sixth seed, I don’t see the experience being anything different than what we’ve really been going through. I feel that everybody’s going to approach this game as a very important game. And I feel like we’re comfortable with our situation that we’re in.
“It’s gonna show what type of team we really are. And we have to come out here and put everything on the line just like we did against Tampa (in Week 17). I said it after the game that Tampa was our first playoff game. And if we play the way we did and stay focused and hit on all cylinders, then we’re gonna be a tough out. So we’re gonna come at this game the same way, with the same attitude, the same drive and the same focus.”
Of course, in the same breath, Thomas mentioned that neither seeding nor past playoff experience matters much. It really boils down to execution.
“We’re a bunch of regular humans,” Strief said. “It’s human nature to say, ‘We won by a bunch, so I feel better about where we’re at.’ And yet, it doesn’t matter. Confidence is important, but it’s not going to win a game. What really matters is that this team gets itself 100 percent ready to go, 100 percent prepared to go and give ourselves an opportunity to win.”
That includes preparing for an opponent that comes with a high degree of difficulty: The Eagles have won six of seven games; they feature the top rusher in the NFL in LeSean McCoy; they run the most unconventional offense in the league under rookie coach Chip Kelly; and while their defense has allowed a lot of yards, they’re tied for third in the league in takeaways.
That also includes preparing to play on the road, where the Saints have struggled this year with a 3-5 record and throughout the history of this Sean Payton-Drew Brees era (going 0-3 in road playoff games since 2006).
Payton continued to playfully sidestep the inevitable questions about the Saints’ road performances on Monday by suggesting that the team will mix up the routine with new Gatorade flavors, pregame meals and apparel on the flight to Philly.
As for on-the-field changes that need to be made, players talked about needing to start faster and avoid the costly turnovers and penalties that have forced them to play behind in so many of their road losses this year.
The Saints’ experience and confidence should indeed help them to overcome some of those factors -- or at least not be consumed by them.
But Payton and players have talked all year about how this year’s team is still developing its own identity. Only 10 current players were around for the 2009 Super Bowl run, and only 20 current players have played in a playoff game with the Saints previously. (Others have playoff experience with other teams).
Seven of the 10 experienced players are on offense -- quarterback Drew Brees, receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem, guard Jahri Evans, Thomas and Strief. The others are safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper and punter Thomas Morstead.
"It's hard to keep rosters together in today's NFL,” Payton said. “I think that we've been fortunate with the help of, No. 1, the durability of a lot of these players. ...There has been a lot of carry over in A) a (offensive) system, a coaching staff and then B) the players that are in it.
“I think we're a young team if you look at our roster, with the amount of rookies that made this team, but we still have that veteran leadership that has been in these types of games. So it's a little bit of a combination of both. Each year your team takes on really a new identity. I think this is a group that's worked extremely hard at improving last year's record.”