If the defending champion New Orleans Saints could play well against the worst teams on their schedule, they'd be in excellent shape.
Instead, they returned to work on Monday trying to figure out why they're good enough to convincingly beat a team such as Pittsburgh and handle Tampa Bay on the road, but are stuck in third place in the NFC South because of losses to Arizona and Cleveland during the past month.
Quarterback Drew Brees said the Saints' early season stumbles have humbled them, which may turn out to be a good thing in the long run.
"The big thing is, you've got to believe that sometimes these things happen to you for a reason. And, you know, it is what brings you together, it strengthens the team, you face a little adversity," Brees said Monday. "It's one of the ways you become battle-tested. It's not just winning the close games, but also fighting through some of the tough times and some of the losses that you feel like are somewhat humiliating."
Even when the Saints have beaten struggling teams, it's been uncomfortably close. They needed a last-second field goal to escape San Francisco with a win over the 49ers, who are now 2-6.
Two weeks later in the Superdome, New Orleans survived a 16-14 victory over Carolina only after a big defensive play by Usama Young took the Panthers out of potential game-winning field goal range.
This week, the Saints get their latest test against a struggling team in a rematch with the Panthers (1-6) in Carolina. A victory could be pivotal for the defending champs, who have been bothered by injuries to key players all season, but have a bye to get an extra week after they return from Carolina.
Brees said it's apparent the Saints are showing urgency this week. While coach Sean Payton often gives his players a light schedule on the Mondays after victories, most players seemed eager to get back to work at the club's suburban New Orleans headquarters following Sunday night's 20-10 triumph over Pittsburgh.
"We're here though today, as a team, meeting, watching film, working out, all that stuff, whereas normally in the past this would have been a 'Victory Monday,'" Brees pointed out. "So I think that goes to show you where our heads are at and where our focus is going into this next game."
The Saints have played well against teams that currently have winning records. Their only loss to such a team came in Week 3 against Atlanta — only after Garrett Hartley missed a short field goal that would have won it in overtime.
"We're used to playing big in big games, prime-time games against opponents like" Pittsburgh, Brees said. "Not to say that there's any kind of a let up the week after, but I think that is an element of human nature. ... To find a way to rally again, to have that same level of intensity and focus the following week is tough. And that's why this business is tough, and it's hard to win."
The Saints have been plagued by sloppiness and turnovers in recent losses to Arizona and Cleveland. Brees threw three interceptions against the Cardinals and four against Cleveland. The Cardinals also returned Ladell Betts' fumble for a score.
Statistically, the Saints look like they still have the foundation to contend if they can minimize mistakes. Despite injuries to starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter (left knee) and Jabari Greer (left shoulder), they rank third defensively, giving up 287.3 yards per game. Porter and Greer both could return as early as this week.
And despite injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, New Orleans still ranks in the top 10 offensively, averaging 365.1 yards, ninth in the league.
"It's definitely been an up and down year for us," safety Roman Harper said. "We need to win the games that we're supposed to win. ... I don't have an exact answer why we've been up and down, but we just have been."
Payton said he has made consistency a central theme with his players recently.
"It's important," Payton said. "We talked about it a week ago. We'll look closely at this film (from the Pittsburgh game) and try to see the areas we feel like we can improve on and then have another good, solid week of practice."
Of course, the Saints said similar things the week before they lost to the Browns.
Notes: Payton said RB Chris Ivory emerged from the win over Pittsburgh with a mild concussion but is expected to be fine for Sunday's game at Carolina. ... Payton said the upcoming bye week after this weekend's game at Carolina would not be a factor in whether key players return from injury now or in Week 11 against Seattle. "If a player's ready, he's ready to play in this game. We'll just do everything we can here. I'm anxious to see how this week goes, because I think we have a chance to get a few guys back."