Nowak: 2023 Saints have no excuses left, it's sink or swim from Week 12 on


It's the NFL in 2023. The noise has never been louder, but at the end of the day the truth remains: Perspective is everything.

It's that exact truth that allows Dennis Allen's Saints and Sean Payton's Broncos to both sit at 5-5 and have fans screaming vastly different things about the state of their respective teams.

DA took over for Payton and leads a team playing in front of a fanbase that's become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Grinding out wins in pursuit of a .500 record hasn't been part of the Saints' DNA, at least not in the good times (of which there were plenty). That's what the 2023 Broncos have been doing for a fanbase that hasn't seen the playoffs since 2015. Denver most recently came from behind on Sunday Night Football to eke out a 21-20 win over the same Vikings team the Saints lost to in an unceremonious thud back to .500.

The parallels are clear, but that's where they end. The Broncos got off to a 1-5 start and lost to the Raiders, Commanders and Jets. Heck, they lost to the Dolphins by FIFTY(!!!). But Payton helped to right the ship and his team has now won four straight games, the last three of which have come against some of the NFL's top contenders. Meanwhile the Saints trend line has been quite different, beating bottom-feeders in the Titans, Patriots, Bears and Panthers. The issue has come in the losses. Two are tough to swallow in a blown lead to the Packers on the road with Derek Carr sitting in a nearby hospital room, and the Bucs taking the Saints to the woodshed in a divisional clash a week later.

The other three? I don't know if you've watched the Jags or the Texans lately, but they're playing good football. The Vikings loss was troubling -- another finished by the backup QB -- and the trends of this team's early struggles on both sides of the ball are too obvious to ignore. That said, it still goes down as another loss to a likely playoff team.

The recipe to success for this Saints squad was always to take advantage of one of the league's easier schedules, win a depressed and depressing NFC South and see what happens from there. It hasn't gone exactly as expected, but nonetheless this team hits the stretch run exactly where it needs to be. The Saints sit alone in first place of the NFC South, controlling its destiny in the second half of a season for the first time in what seems like forever.

Seven games remain, and in my opinion, those games hold the fate of a lot of jobs in their hands. It's not about any one particular drive, nor any one particular game. It's about the bigger picture and it's one that this front office is assuredly watching closely. Can Derek Carr get this team where it needs to go? Can the Pete Carmichael offense hold in up in the 2023 version of the NFL? Is the current form of this defense and its veteran leadership still on the right side of the age/ability bubble?

Those are more abstract questions. The more prudent one will be: Can you continue to beat the lowly teams on your schedule?

That group includes the Giants, a team that sold off a key defensive piece at the trade deadline and is rolling out Tommy DeVito at quarterback. Despite that, Washington -- a team that still had playoff ambitions -- found out the hard way what can happen when a team that looks dead in the water still goes out and plays hard.

For the Saints, I don't put any particular record on what would be a success/failure. The context always matters. For example, there's a lot of talk about Dennis Allen's coaching record, but I assure you the Saints aren't looking at what happened to the Raiders in the mid-2010s to inform their decisions. DA is 12-15 as the Saints' head coach, and that's the number his current team cares about.

Still, 12-15 is not what it needs to be. I don't think Dennis Allen is guaranteed a third season, but making sure his team avoids the obvious pitfalls is probably all he has to do to get there. If he can't, well, it's going to be on Mickey Loomis to make the type of hard decision he hasn't had to in nearly two decades regarding a head coach.

You don't stick around as a GM for 20 years by making rash decisions, and to his credit, Loomis has been as consistent as anyone when it comes to this team's performance. In a league where it seems meddling from the top down is as common as ever, he's allowed his coaches to coach and his players to play without interference, at least publicly. That said, the quote he gave on WWL last week goes a long way.

"I think when you get into these stretch runs, you’re not building character, you’re revealing it, and so … the character of our team will be revealed over these next seven games," he told Bobby Hebert and Mike Hoss. "I believe in our guys. I believe in our team, our coaches, our staff. We’ve got to demonstrate that in these last seven games and see where it takes us.”

This team has the talent to make a playoff run and to host a playoff game. With the lineup remaining and only one game against a team with a winning record, anything short of 9-8 (a 4-3 finish), can and should be considered an abject failure. Not because of the numbers, but because you couldn't go better than .500 against a lineup of teams with a winning percentage of .313% (16-35).

Failing to beat the bad teams means one thing: You're one of them. A Saints franchise that's centered so much of its decision-making around maintaining a winning culture can't sit idly but under those circumstances.

As much as this franchise values continuity, and boy howdy it sure does, these final games will be played directly in front of the mirror. Might things click in ways we've yet seen? Might the final results lay bare the need for significant staffing changes under the current regime? Might there be a clear need for a total overhaul?

The only thing I know is none of that has been decided through 10 games, and it's on the people in the building to write the next chapter in this story. For the sake of the team and the fans, I sure hope it's one worth waiting for.

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