Last Sunday, the New Orleans Saints played one of their worst games in Sean Payton's tenure as head coach. Hosting the Carolina Panthers – who were winless in their previous seven games – the Saints were outplayed in every phase. Carolina forced turnovers on two of New Orleans' first three offensive plays and ran the ball for 271 yards, helping the Panthers control possession for 36 minutes.
The normally-prolific Saints offense, which has ranked in the top-third of the league in points every season since Payton took over in 2006, didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. New Orleans lost 41-10, tying the mark for the fewest points scored under Payton in a home game. It marked the fourth straight loss for the Saints at the Superdome and dropped their record to 5-8 on the season.
Yet, with all of that, New Orleans enters Monday's contest against the Bears at Soldier Field in control of its own destiny to reach the playoffs with three weeks remaining in the regular season. The team is tied for first in the NFC South with Atlanta – the Saints and Falcons meet on December 21 in New Orleans – thanks to playing in the worst division in the NFL.
Heading into Chicago, the Saints are dealing with the balance of trying to fix the mistakes that plagued them versus the Panthers while also looking to stay focused on the task of reaching the postseason.
"There are a ton of things we have to be better at, and the game we played this past weekend, it couldn't be much worse than that. There weren't a lot of things that we did well at all," Payton said Thursday on a conference call with Chicago reporters. "It just so happens that we are at the top of the division we are in, and yet, more importantly, it's about us improving as a team."
Payton knows what playoff teams look like - he has guided the Saints to the postseason in five of his seven seasons in New Orleans (Payton did not coach the Saints in 2012 because of a league suspension). That includes playoff trips in each of his last four seasons at the helm, starting with the Saints' victory in Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 campaign.
One issue that has plagued the Saints this year is turnovers. New Orleans has a minus-nine turnover differential, with only 13 takeaways compared to 22 giveaways. Quarterback Drew Brees is among the most accurate passers in league history and currently leads the NFL in completion percentage. But he also has seen his interception percentage rise, with 12 interceptions this season, along with four fumbles.
Brees spoke to the Chicago media on Thursday as well, saying the Saints are not studying the standings or looking at the upcoming matchup with the Falcons. Instead, they are looking to improve as a team in order to try and beat the Bears on Monday.
"We are at the point of the season where we have a ton to play for. Obviously we are disappointed with our record, we are disappointed with that performance we put on the field last week," Brees said. "And yet, there's nothing we can do about that right now. All we can worry about right now is what's in front of us, creating that sense of urgency, having our best week of preparation and hoping that translates to our best game."
The quarterback has had some big games against the Bears in the past, including in 2013, when he threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-18 Saints victory. With the Saints reeling on both sides of the ball, Payton will again turn to Brees to try and take New Orleans back to the postseason. Brees has thrown 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions – with a passerrating of 110.4 – in the Saints' five victories this season. In the eight losses, he has 15 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a rating of 92.7.
"As far as I'm concerned, you need to win every game. And you can't win every game, so you win this game," Brees said, when asked about still having a chance at winning the NFC South. "We know we got our work cut out for us, we are going to have to put together our best week of preparation, our best performance of the year in order to get it done.
"But all you want to be doing this time of the year is to play for something. And the fact of the matter is, we're right in the thick of it; we have a lot to play for."