METAIRIE, La. – Saints coach Sean Payton wants his players to be mindful of memorable turnarounds in sports history.
If anything, it could make New Orleans' immediate future look a little less bleak on the heels of a three-game losing streak.
"There is value in referencing" the slumps of championship teams past, Payton said after Wednesday's practice. "I've made some analogies already with these guys."
Certainly, New Orleans' prospects for a deep playoff run don't look good right now, even though their 4-7 record is good enough for a first-place tie with Atlanta atop the NFC South.
Yet Payton's own experience offers proof of how little a stretch of impressive victories or disheartening losses during the regular season can mean once the playoffs start.
In 2011, for example, Payton coached the Saints to a 49-24 rout of the New York Giants on the Monday night after Thanksgiving. For New Orleans, the victory was part of a nine-game winning streak that merely set the stage for a bitter playoff disappointment at San Francisco. For New York, the loss was part of a four-game skid that is now widely remembered as a character-building struggle on the way to Super Bowl glory.
In 2009, Payton coached the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl after ending the regular season with three straight losses.
For the Saints' head coach, looking at those seasons or even the way the 2004 Boston Red Sox overcame a 3-0 American League Championship Series deficit against the New York Yankees can be instructive.
"You're constantly, as a teacher, trying to do that," Payton said. "You look at some parallels, some comparisons."
Payton also stressed, however, that for such comparisons to be relevant to the 2014 Saints, "We need to find a way to improve. Obviously we're not playing well enough right now."
On the field, the Saints' primary concerns are on defense. In its past two losses, New Orleans has allowed opposing offenses to each convert nine of 13 third-down opportunities and to run the ball successfully — with Cincinnati rushing for 186 yards and Baltimore for 215. Those two clock-consuming trends have limited possessions for Drew Brees and the Saints' second-ranked offense.
This Sunday, New Orleans heads to Pittsburgh (7-4), where the Saints will have to contend with one of the NFL's top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger.
Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro said the Saints' defense, which ranked fourth last season, remains optimistic it can address its deficiencies before it's too late.
"The majority of the guys who were here last year when we (played better) are here now and at the same time, we're not going to go in the tank," Vaccaro said. "We're being positive. We've had our games when we've been dominant. That's our potential. ... We've been there before."
Vaccaro, who is active on social media and reads about every article he can find about his team, said he is aware that many fans see the entire NFC South as a joke, won't take the winner of that division seriously and don't think any of them deserve a chance at the playoffs — never mind hosting a first-round game.
"It doesn't affect me at all," Vaccaro said, adding that, in his experience, the talent gap between teams at the top and bottom of the standings is rather small. "This is the NFL. These are the best players in the world at this game. Everybody's good."
By that logic, the Saints might have some surprises in store for the rest of the NFL this season.
Far-fetched as that may seem in light of recent results, veteran leaders such as Brees see it differently.
"Success is the worst teacher; failure is the best teacher," Brees said. "It's unfortunate that we have to go through this, but I think everybody buys into that. I think everybody believes that, that we're being sharpened by that.
"We are about to hit the tipping point," Brees added. "I believe that. It is only a matter of time. We are going to catch some breaks. We are going to get some wins and hopefully those wins will come in bunches — but we have to win the first one first."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL