NEW ORLEANS -- Sean Payton sat down before a crowd of reporters and cameras, looked up with an apologetic smile and blurted out, "I haven't shaved."
It was an odd but perhaps fitting opening line from a coach whose margin for error is razor thin.
It took five games for the New Orleans Saints to regain the form of their remarkable 2006 season. Their 28-17 victory at Seattle on Sunday night, which left the Saints at 1-4, may have come too late. But history shows it's not impossible for a team to begin 0-4 and make the playoffs: San Diego did it in 1992.
The question the Saints will have to answer in the next few weeks is whether they can sustain the level of performance they summoned in Seattle. They had a touchdown and blocked field goal on special teams, five sacks and an interception on defense, and converted most of their scoring chances into touchdowns on offense while not allowing Brees to be sacked.
But the Saints will cement their status as pretenders if they fall back into patterns that caused them to lose each of their first three games by 17 points or more.
Payton said he doesn't even want to consider the Saints' slim playoff prospects, or even their chances of getting back to .500 over the next month or so.
"I'm not looking at December," Payton said. "I'm looking at this weekend. Our job is to look at Atlanta. It's the only game we can play this weekend. We're not going to play three games this weekend and get back to .500. We only get to play one game ... and that's all we can do."
There was an illegal formation call that took a touchdown off the board and led to a field goal. Olindo Mare missed a short field goal that could have put the Saints up by two scores in the fourth quarter. Devery Henderson had a long pass bounce out of his hands and into the arms of a defender for an interception during a potential game-winning drive. The Saints had yet another chance for a go-ahead field goal from 54 yards, but Mare kicked that one wide.
Payton decided he needed to get David Patten and Lance Moore more involved against Seattle. He did, and there were fewer drops and more scoring. Patten had eight catches for 113 yards. Moore had three catches for 35 yards, including a key third-down conversion on a scoring drive, and he ran in a reverse for his first regular-season touchdown in the NFL.
"Guys were making catches this week. That's the biggest difference," center Jeff Faine said. "We still haven't abandoned what our goal is and that's to get back into the playoffs, and once you get back into the playoffs it doesn't matter what your regular-season record was."
Apparently, Saints fans haven't abandoned hope either. When the team plane returned from Seattle around 4:30 a.m. on Monday morning, a few dozen die-hards were waiting to welcome them along an access road leading out of the airport.
The scene was reminiscent of 2006, when the Saints won six road games en route to the playoffs and became a leading symbol of civic pride in a city needing a morale boost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"I don't know if they stayed up all night for us or got up extra early before work," linebacker Scott Fujita said. "It was nice to come home to that."
Still, Fujita said he wasn't about to get carried away.
"The only thing that one win did was guarantee we're not going to be 0-16," Fujita said. "We still got our butts kicked in the beginning of the season. But I think we all sensed that the tide was starting to turn. We should have won the Carolina game and that left a sour taste in everybody's mouth. So I think things are going to start to swing here."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved