The Saints were accustomed to being yearly playoff contenders for most of the Drew Brees era. They had a three-year stretch without a postseason appearance from 2014 through 2016, but during Brees’ 15 years with the franchise, they made the playoffs nine times and never finished worse than 7-9.
Reaching the postseason without Brees, however, will prove difficult.
The Saints are sitting at 8-8 entering the final week of the 2021 NFL regular season. They are the last team out of the NFC Wild Card race and will need to win to potentially earn a fifth consecutive postseason appearance. Even that won’t guarantee them a playoff berth.
This New Orleans team isn’t the same one that won the NFC South last year. They are much thinner at receiver and have started four different quarterbacks, with Taysom Hill being their top late-season choice. All that’s to say that if the Saints do make the playoffs, Sean Payton deserves a lot of credit for his ability to keep this team afloat to kickstart the post-Brees era.
How can the Saints qualify for the postseason? There’s only one way.
1. The Saints must beat the Falcons
The Saints have control over one piece of their path to the postseason. They have to finish 9-8 on the season if they are going to make a push for the No. 7 seed in the NFC. So, they will have to beat the rival Falcons on the road to make that happen.
The New Orleans vs. Atlanta rivalry has been a seesaw affair of late. The Saints have a 6-5 record in their last 11 games against the Falcons, and they have put together two, three-game winning streaks during that time. However, they lost to Atlanta earlier in the season; the Falcons earned a 27-25 victory during which Matt Ryan threw for a season-high 343 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Trevor Siemian started that game for New Orleans, so perhaps their offense will operate better with Hill in charge. Their passing offense hasn’t been great under Hill, but they have been able to run the ball. The Falcons have the seventh-worst run defense in the NFL and have allowed 127.9 yards per contest this season, so Hill and Alvin Kamara should have a chance to lead the Saints to victory. That’s part of the reason that they opened a 4.5-point favorite in this matchup.
2. The 49ers must lose to the Rams
That said, the Saints aren’t guaranteed to make the playoffs if they beat the Falcons. They also need the 49ers to lose to the Rams in order to sneak in as the No. 7 seed.
The 49ers currently own a 9-7 record. A win or tie would automatically give them a better record than the Saints, so New Orleans wouldn’t be able to catch them in the standings. The 49ers are the lone NFC team that hasn’t clinched a playoff spot, so the only way the Saints can get into the postseason is if they have the same record as the 49ers.
If the 49ers and Saints are tied in the standings, the Saints would have the tiebreakers necessary to bump the 49ers out of the playoffs. The Saints have a better division record than the 49ers and would have a better conference record than San Francisco if they finished the year tied in the standings. That would give the Saints the edge over the 49ers in any tiebreaker, including a three-way one that the Eagles would win.
So, the only way that the Saints can get into the postseason is with a win and a 49ers loss. FiveThirtyEight gives the Saints a 39 percent chance of being the final NFC team to clinch a Wild Card berth.