When the Saints play the Panthers in Charlotte tomorrow, it'll be for an 11-4 record, 1st place in the NFC South and control of the 2 seed. Mind you the Saints lock up the divsion and bye with a win, whereas the Panthers will still need to win in week 17 (or have a Saints loss) to secure the same. The stakes just don't get any higher and for all intents and purposes, this is a playoff game. So the question is: is this the biggest regular season game in Saints history?
Hard to argue against it, really. In 2011 the Saints comfortably reeled off 8 straight to go from 5-3 to 13-3, but were behind the Packers the entire way and never had a true shot at the top seed. In 2010, week 17 didn't matter as the Saints were a wild card no matter what. Sure the win over the Falcons in week 16 was big as it secured a playoff spot… but the stakes aren't like they are now. The Saints were playing to just "get in the playoffs" at that point. Right now it's "get in the playoffs" vs. "be set up to make a Super Bowl run". In 2009 the Saints were 13-0 to start the season, so losing the top seed was never really in question.
I could recount all the Haslett and More regular season games too, and prior. The bottom line is this: the Saints never had a shot at a Super Bowl in those days. In fact, merely getting into the playoffs was the goal. This Saints team is still capable to go for in the playoffs, particularly if they get a game at home. And that's just it, this game is against a division rival that has the same record, on the road, and it will dictate whether the Saints play at home or on the road in the playoffs. If the Saints win, they have a decent shot at the Super Bowl. None of us feel great about them winning in Seattle, sure, but Seattle would still have to win a game before they'd host the NFC Championship. If the Saints lose today, make the playoffs, and win a wild card game on the road… they'd likely be going to Seattle in the divisional road a week earlier. A win would delay the possibility of playing them again. If the Saints lose this game, then the road woes become even more significant, and they'd be up against having to win three straight on the road against playoff teams in January to make the Super Bowl. That borders on impossible for any team, but especially this Saints team right now.
So what's hanging in the balance of this one game in Charlotte for the Saints is having virutally any shot at going to the Super Bowl versus not. I'd argue that never in team history have they had a regular season game like that. Let's hope they can play up to the implications, unlike the other times they've been on the road as of late.