The New Orleans Saints have insisted all summer that they don’t talk about last season, they don’t look at replays of the no-call and they don’t even think about one of the most devastating playoff losses in NFL history.
“We know what happened and how it felt, how bad it hurt and all that stuff,” left tackle Terron Armstead said of the overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game, which included the infamous missed pass interference call in the final minutes. “So in the back of a few players’ minds, it will be long-lasting. Might never forget about it. Me, I don’t think I ever will forget about it, of course not.
“But for this 2019 Saints team, it don’t have anything to do with that game. … I think it’s just a completely different team. A lot of guys are here now that weren’t here last year, so they have no idea what that is — what that feeling was for the guys that were here.”
Of course that’s the right approach. And it might even be true.
Players said it was hard to watch the Super Bowl, knowing it “should have been us.” And it couldn’t have been easy for them to start over from scratch in April and May, pushing that proverbial boulder back up the mountain.
But guard Larry Warford said the Saints have done an excellent job of moving forward this offseason, channeling any emotions back into the process. Just like they did last year when they got over the “Minneapolis Miracle.” (The Vikings, down 24-23 to the Saints with 10 seconds remaining and a trip to the 2017 NFC Championship Game at stake, connected on a 61-yard TD pass to win it.)
“It’s gotta strengthen you and motivate you,” Drew Brees said. “I guess it’s one of two directions: Anytime you have some sort of negativity or some sort of adversity, it’s, ‘Are you going to allow it to affect you negatively or are you going to allow it to affect you positively?’ And I think we take the approach that we’re gonna let it affect us positively.”
Nothing, however, will help this team move on more than beating the Houston Texans at home in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night — and finally winning a season opener for the first time since 2013.
“Listen, it’d be really important,” Brees said with a knowing laugh. “It’d be nice to start out in the win column.”
It’s one of the strangest streaks going in the NFL today. In fact, the Saints are a combined 1-9 in Weeks 1 and 2 over the past five seasons, with the only win coming in a sloppy 21-18 squeaker at home last year that required the Cleveland Browns to miss four kicks.
And you’d better believe it has been a topic of conversation in team meetings this week. Coach Sean Payton even tweaked the usual practice routine and daily schedule from years past (without getting into specifics).
“Obviously, two or three times in a row is one thing, but [five is different],” Payton said. “Certainly, we’re not gonna just repeat the calendar schedule from the last few years.”
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It would be difficult to call any Week 1 game a must-win. The Saints won their division each of the past two years after slow starts, and they actually started 13-2 last season despite a Week 1 loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But a fast start seems more important than ever for the Saints this year — not only to exorcise those no-call demons but because of the brutal schedule that follows for the rest of September.
After starting out on a Monday night, the Saints will have to quickly turn around on a short week and travel across the country to Los Angeles for a Week 2 rematch against the Rams. Then they will stay out west all week, practicing in Washington until their Week 3 game at the Seattle Seahawks. Then they return home for a Sunday night game in Week 4 against a Dallas Cowboys team that physically punished them last December.
The Saints’ defense, in particular, has started slow in recent years.
As defensive end Cameron Jordan reminded, Ryan Fitzpatrick was “playing like Fitzmagic” in Week 1 last year, throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns when the Buccaneers won a 48-40 track meet. In 2017, the Saints allowed more than 1,000 yards of offense in the first two games.
In both cases, though, the defense eventually settled in and became a strength.
“The last two years, we definitely hit our stride midseason, quarter-season through. And this is something that you want to start out hot out of the gates,” Jordan said. “We need that same mentality we usually have in Week 3 in Week 1.”
The one positive the Saints can take from each of the past two seasons, despite the slow starts and excruciating finishes, is that they know they’re good enough to reach the Super Bowl.
“It’s encouraging, because on the flip side of that, there’s a lot of teams that are trying to figure it out. They don’t really know,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got it all figured out. But we have a pretty good idea of what this team’s capable of.
“So I think it’s encouraging, exciting. Everybody’s just ready to play football again.”