METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton has never had any problem identifying the moment when things turned around for the New Orleans Saints.
In fact, he pinpointed the moment before it even happened.
It was Week 3 in Carolina; the Saints were 0-2 and just starting a nine-day road trip to Charlotte and London with their season already on the line.
“Coach Payton said that it would be [the turning point of the season], going on the road against a good team and then taking the trip to London from there,” Saints center Max Unger said. “Our backs were against the wall, and we responded accordingly.”
Did they ever.
The Saints routed the Panthers 34-13, winning the turnover battle 3-0 and posting 362 yards on a defense that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL at the time.
Fifteen weeks later, the Saints are 11-5 and back in the playoffs for the first time in four years and will be hosting those same Panthers, also now 11-5, on Sunday.
“It just kind of let everybody know, ‘Hey, we’re not a bad team, we’re not a bad defense. This is something we can do. What we were during the preseason wasn’t a fluke; it’s something we can truly be.’ And we rolled with it from there,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said of that Week 3 awakening. “It was able to breed some confidence into us, creating three turnovers, just kind of keeping [quarterback Cam Newton] flustered all game, and then our offense being able to roll the way they did.”
Saints receiver Michael Thomas had five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown on New Orleans’ opening drive, and rookie running back Alvin Kamara scored the first of his 14 touchdowns on a 25-yard run in the fourth quarter.
But it was New Orleans’ defensive performance that mattered most of all.
The Saints’ defense got abused in the first two games of the season, allowing a total of 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns in blowout losses to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots. The Saints were suffering from the same kinds of coverage breakdowns that plagued them over the previous three seasons, and they were in jeopardy of destroying all of the optimism and confidence that they had built throughout a terrific preseason performance.
A week later, the resurgent Saints defense shut out the Miami Dolphins 20-0 in London. And after the Week 5 bye, they came back and scored three defensive touchdowns in a 52-38 win over the Detroit Lions.
The Saints wound up finishing tied for 10th in the NFL in points allowed (20.4, tied with Carolina), 17th in the NFL in yards allowed (336.5), tied for ninth in takeaways (25) and tied for seventh in sacks (42).
“I’ve said before, I thought that two-game road stretch we took was important at Carolina and at London,” Payton said. “We dug ourselves into an early hole, and we needed to gain some confidence.”
The Saints swept Carolina in the regular season, beating them convincingly again in New Orleans in Week 13, 31-21.
But as Rankins said, “We’re gonna have to come out and prove we can do it again for the third time.”