Every game matters in the NFL, where any team can win on any given Sunday. But the stakes are getting higher and higher for the New Orleans Saints. The team has slumped to a 5-4 record with close losses in each of the last two weeks, and now they’re about to face the Philadelphia Eagles coming off a 30-13 dismantling of the Denver Broncos.
NFL research has found that teams with a 5-4 record to start the season qualify for the newly-expanded playoffs 54% of the time; winning this week achieves a 6-4 record, with a 67% chance of reaching the postseason, but a loss and drop to 5-5 makes it 39%. That’s a 28% swing. Sure, the Saints could lose on Sunday in Philadelphia and then run the table to end the year with a 12-5 record — but that just isn’t likely. Early-season losses to the bottom-feeder New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons is proof of it.
On the other hand, the NFC South is nearly wide-open. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have dropped back-to-back losses of their own and are sitting at 6-3 with four tough divisional games and two matchups against teams with winning records (the 5-4 Saints and 6-3 Bills) left to play. Another upset loss to the next opponent, the Giants — who lost by two points in last year’s game with Tampa Bay, and who beat the Saints in overtime this season — helps the Saints even if they come up short against the Eagles.
Additionally, the Saints are about to play three games in 11 days. After flying out to Philadelphia they’ll return to New Orleans and host the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night, then rest a week and face the Dallas Cowboys on the following Thursday. That’s a tough out for banged-up starters like Alvin Kamara (knee), Terron Armstead (knee/shoulder), and Ryan Ramczyk (knee), as well as key contributors in Taysom Hill (foot) and Tanoh Kpassagnon (ankle), each of whom missed time in practice this week. Resting them against the lowly 4-6 Eagles and accepting that they might lose that game, creating a tougher path to the playoffs, might make sense.
But it’s really tough to put all our eggs in one basket in hopes of winning the NFC South. The frisky 5-5 Carolina Panthers are looking to make some noise after reuniting with Cam Newton. They beat the Saints handily early this season. It’s very possible that the Buccaneers figure some things out and get back on track. The Falcons are cooked but there’s still room for plenty of chaos in the division.
If the Saints lose to the Eagles they’re facing probable losses to Buffalo and Dallas in subsequent weeks — risking a 5-7 start and a 13% shot at reaching the playoffs. That isn’t something they can risk. They can’t leave things to chance and hope their division rivals screw up. They still control their own destiny, to an extent, and their road to the playoffs starts with a win this week.