The long lumbering 2014 roller coaster ride has led us here, to an almost de facto NFC South divisional championship game in the Superdome against the Atlanta Falcons. A New Orleans Saints win, coupled with a Carolina Panthers loss, would bring the division title back to New Orleans. A Falcons win would put the title within Atlanta's reach.
Read it that way and you almost forget we're talking about teams that have a combined 11 wins this year.
When the Saints lost an opening day shootout to the Falcons at the beginning of this season, many fans probably thought they were watching a battle between playoff teams. That, of course, is still true. Technically. The months since have been an opinion-changing struggle, but at this point the months since don't matter: A divisional championship is still a divisional championship.
The Saints went 11-5 last season and were a good football team; they didn't win the NFC South, won a playoff game, and lost a playoff game. The Saints of 2014 have an odd chance to accomplish even more.
New Orleans has won its division only five times — in 1991, 2000, 2006, 2009, and 2011 — so none of us should sneer at the opportunity to do so again, no matter how we got here.
Beating Atlanta is, of course, always good on its own terms. All Saints fans have their stories of trauma and triumph
. The stakes don't have to be big for Saints/Falcons games to feel like the playoffs, but, despite everything, these stakes are.
Saints fans can't ever assume victory will happen, not in 2014; the nature of the team this year has been wild unpredictability. I've tried to break games down logically, but it's been no use. The only thing any of us knows is none of us knows what will happen Sunday, or what will happen after
The possibilities are myriad. What if the re-structured Saints' defense we saw against the Chicago Bears last night was itself pretty good, in addition to having the good fortune to unveil itself against a Bears team that makes the 2014 Saints look stable?
What if, after tens of millions of dollars spent on all-pro safety Jairus Byrd, and a year of hype spent on safety Kenny Vaccaro, and a lot of talk about the many-safetied future of NFL defense
the Saints would deploy this year, the salvation of New Orleans' secondary turned out to be an undrafted rookie named Pierre?
What if Drew Brees, far from being a declining player, is actually on a quiet hot streak, readying himself to play his best football down the final stretch? After all, over the past month, Brees has completed 73 percent of his passes for 1542 yards, with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
What if the combination of suddenly, in-the-eleventh-hour-improved defense and Drew Brees in annihilation mode makes the Saints the contender we thought they'd be?
Probably not. The 2014 season has taught me not to get my hopes up. So probably not — but maybe
And it may all come down to beating the Falcons.