BALTIMORE — While savoring their stature as defending Super Bowl champions, the New Orleans Saints have assumed a more pressing role: just another team trying to enhance its position in the playoff race.
The Saints face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in a duel between second-place teams in their respective divisions. It's the second of four important games for New Orleans, a stretch that began with last week's 31-13 rout of the St. Louis Rams.
"We looked at the last quarter of the schedule ... and the one thing we talked about was that all four of those opponents are in serious playoff contention and are all vying for those spots," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so, I think at that point, it's more about the now, the current season. St. Louis is trying to win the NFC West and Baltimore, just like us, (is) trying to put themselves in the best possible situation for a postseason berth."
New Orleans (10-3) needs a win to keep in step with first-place Atlanta (11-2) in the NFL South. The Saints' final two games are against the Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who entered the weekend in the third place in the division at 8-5.
Baltimore (9-4) trails Pittsburgh by one game in the AFC North.
The fact that the Saints won the championship last year is seemingly irrelevant to the Ravens.
"I'm sure the Saints will tell you there's no Super Bowl champs right now," free safety Ed Reed said. "We're in December of a whole new year right now. That Super Bowl is gone. They are still a great team and they're the defending champs, but it's a new season. We're just trying to get to 10-4."
The Saints enter with a six-game winning streak and a run of five straight games in which they scored at least 30 points. If the idea was to garner some momentum for the stretch run, New Orleans appears to have reached that objective.
"Well, we played better last week than we did in Cincinnati (a 34-30 win on Dec. 5)," Payton said. "Each week, I think we spend a ton of time on talking about the process and putting good practices together, trying to improve as a team. ... You hope to be playing your best football and you hope to be improving week to week, and certainly, this is a week where we're going to have to play a lot better than we did in recent games against this Ravens team."
Similarly, Baltimore must improve on its performance of late to have a chance against Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees and standout receiver Marques Colston. After losing to the Steelers 10-6 two weeks ago, the Ravens blew a 21-point lead under a barrage of successful passes by Matt Schaub before defeating Houston 34-28 in overtime on Monday night.
"I think every team wants to be consistent and put a bunch of wins together. We haven't been consistent," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "The offense might have a good game. Then we'll be up and the offense will have a bad game. If we can put that whole game together, then we'll definitely get a bunch of wins."
What better time to get started than at home against the Saints?
"Until there's a new champ, they're still the champs," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You definitely want to see where you measure up against the team that won the world championship."
All season long, the Saints have gone up against teams looking to knock off last season's best team. Now they're going up against teams who also want to enhance their playoff position.
"I know that in the past when I've been on a team and the defending Super Bowl champ was coming to town, I think there's probably a little bit extra motivation," Brees said. "Especially when you look at the situation that we're in now, both us and the Ravens are fighting for playoff spots, fighting within our division, and you know, there's just a lot at stake."
After allowing Schaub to throw for 393 yards on Monday night, the Ravens face an even bigger challenge in Brees, who's heaved 28 touchdown passes and should go over 4,000 yards for the season Sunday. Plus, all-purpose running back Reggie Bush has returned to form following a fibula injury in September.
"That offense is everywhere," Reed said. "You have all kinds of threats, every different personnel group. You have to be on point, you have to be on your Ps and Qs at all times. With Drew Brees back there, he's throwing the ball everywhere. You got to cover everybody."