NEW ORLEANS -- It could go down as the greatest season in Saints history, or one of the most disappointing.
Nope, the Saints couldn't quite stop that sense of impending doom so familiar to their fans from creeping into the backdrop of an otherwise magical 13-3 season.
At least as the top seed in the NFC, the Saints had a week to rest and reflect on why they're stumbling into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. And why they haven't really looked like themselves since their 38-17 dismantling of the New England Patriots on Nov. 30.
New Orleans went 2-3 in its last five games and needed an improbable missed short field goal by then-Washington kicker Shaun Suisham to avoid going 1-4 during that stretch. In their other victory at Atlanta, the Saints had trouble putting away a Falcons squad led by backup quarterback Chris Redman, who completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 302 yards.
Two weeks later came the lowest point.
With their first chance to clinch the No. 1 playoff seed, the Saints instead earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first 13-win team to lose to a two-win team. They blew a 17-0 lead to Tampa Bay right in front of their own stunned fans in the Louisiana Superdome. If not for Chicago's upset of Minnesota the next night, the Saints might not have finished atop the conference.
It all begs the question why should anyone expect the Saints to conjure their dominant early-season form when they return from their first-round bye?
"The good news is we're going to get ready to see here soon," Saints coach Sean Payton said this week. "I like the locker room. I like the leadership we have, the commitment we have to doing things the right way."
Payton said he believes his players remain confident, then showed his confidence in them by giving them most of this week off. Saints players, with the exception of those who needed to stay for treatment of injuries, were free to leave town after Monday's meetings and were not due back until Saturday.
Certainly, this season will hold a special place in Saints history regardless of how the playoffs turn out.
New Orleans had never won 13 games in a season, including playoff wins.
Quarterback Drew Brees set an NFL record for completion percentage (.706) while New Orleans scored a franchise-record 510 points, which led the league by 40.
The Saints also had 39 takeaways, second in the NFL to Green Bay's 40.
New players such as safety Darren Sharper, who had nine interceptions and returned three for scores, transformed the Saints' defense into a stronger unit. It went from being singled out as the team's primary weakness to one that made game-changing plays.
But as the season wore on, injuries to key players -- namely starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter -- mounted. Top interior lineman Sedrick Ellis also sat out several games with a sprained left knee and played through the pain at other times. Concussions knocked cornerback Randall Gay and linebacker Scott Shanle out late in the season.
In the rankings, the defense steadily slipped from as high as the top 10 in yards allowed down to 25th, the worst ranking of any playoff team.
Payton said he wasn't really concerned about regular-season statistics at this point.
"From a statistical standpoint ... we'll put up a blank sheet. It starts really new," Payton said. "You've got to pay attention to some of the things you've done well and some of the things you haven't done well, but from all the numbers, it's another season."
Although no team has won a Super Bowl after losing its last three regular-season games, Payton wasn't worried about that. He rested Brees and numerous other regulars in New Orleans' regular-season finale at Carolina.
Payton seemed amused when the word "never" came up regarding historical trends the Saints would have to defy to win a championship. He responded by mentioning that the Saints had never won 13 games before, had never been a No. 1 seed and have never been to a Super Bowl in any event.
"There's so many of those numbers," Payton said. "We heard it all year long."
For their part, Payton's players said they were behind his decision to rest key players at Carolina, and to give everyone a little more time off this past week. When they return to action, every defensive starter but left end Charles Grant, who will miss the playoffs with a torn triceps, is expected back.
"Obviously, we would like to have been playing better down the stretch here, but more than anything, with this rest and getting everybody back healthy, there is going to be excitement in that defensive huddle," Shanle said.
On offense, tight end Jeremy Shockey and wide receiver Lance Moore expect to return, which could help Brees get back to the multiple-touchdown games he routinely had earlier this season.
Pierre Thomas, who cracked three ribs in the loss to Tampa Bay, said he, too, should be back to bolster a running game that also features Mike Bell and Reggie Bush.
Saints players say they understood their poor finish to the regular season will be a big topic if they lose their first playoff game. In reality, though, they didn't see their recent struggles as a factor.
"I don't think anybody on this team is worried about the three-game losing streak," linebacker Scott Fujita said. "Those 16 games are behind us. As great as they were and as bad as they were the last couple weeks, now we're moving on to bigger and better things."