METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Saints guard Jahri Evans acknowledges a measure of regret that it took so long - probably too long - for New Orleans to resemble the playoff contender it had been the previous three seasons.
"We knew the talent we had in the locker room and definitely displayed yesterday. We wish could have done that a little bit earlier in the season," Evans said Monday, a day after the Saints turned in by far their most complete game of the season in a 41-0 rout of NFC South rival Tampa Bay.
"You definitely saw a glimpse of what we were trying to do going into the season and what we knew we had in this locker room and hopefully we can keep it going, finish strong and take it into next year."
When the Saints kick off at Dallas Sunday, they will still be mathematically alive for the last NFC wild card berth, but also facing exceedingly long odds.
To make the playoffs, the Saints will have to win their last two games against the Cowboys and at home against Carolina, and need eight games involving other teams to go their way during the final two weeks.
Specifically, New Orleans also will need the Cowboys to lose their season finale against Washington, St. Louis to lose one of its last two games, and Minnesota, Chicago and the New York Giants to all lose their final two games.
If it happens, the Saints will finish in a five-way tie at 8-8 and incredibly sneak into the playoffs based on a series of tiebreakers.
They would welcome that, of course, but they're certainly not deluding themselves. Rather, they're talking about building for next season as if they've already been eliminated.
"It's sad that it's a little late in the season" for the Saints to play their best football, said defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had a sack, strip and fumble recovery on the same play against the Buccaneers.
"It's nice to see we're capitalizing on the potential that everybody saw in us this past game, but we should have showed that earlier.
"Most definitely it's a pride issue right now," Jordan added. "I'd love to break even. We're 6-8 right now. Two games left. I'd love to get these last two wins."
The Saints piled up lopsided wins through much of past three seasons, which including a Super Bowl title, two divisional titles and three straight trips to the postseason. The Saints had 13-win regular seasons in both 2009 and 2011, along with an 11-win run in 2010.
But in the spring of 2012, the Saints became embroiled in scandal, losing head coach Sean Payton for an entire season in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation. General manager Mickey Loomis got an eight-game ban and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games.
While suspensions for two current Saints defensive captains, linebacker Jon Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, were ultimately thrown out, their legal effort to overturn their punishment hung over the franchise all the way through Week 14.
Now the Saints, who won more games than any NFL team from 2009 to 2011, can't finish better than .500 in the 2012 regular season.
Still, after their rout of the Buccaneers, an 8-8 finish hardly seems out of the question.
The Saints' defense, which allowed 400 yards or more in each of the first 10 games, has not allowed 400 yards in a game since and has posted the first shutout of any Saints team since 1995.
"When you get off to the rocky start we did, it's human nature and I don't blame guys one bit to have a little bit of doubt," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "These guys have never given up. ... They've embraced it, even through some down times, because certainly in this business it's all about winning and I don't think anybody here feels like we've won enough. But after yesterday, I would hope that there's a lot more comfort and confidence."
The Saints' offense also looked as if it was back to its old prolific self, accounting for 447 yards, including 149 on the ground against Tampa Bay's No. 1 ranked run defense, which came in allowing only 78.2 yards per game. Drew Brees threw for 307 yards and four TDs.
"We've got a lot of guys that have a lot of want-to on this team and have a lot of pride," Vitt said. "It was a good team win and we probably put together four quarters as well as we have all year long."
Now the question is whether the Saints can carry it forward against a Dallas squad in a playoff hunt of its own. As far as Evans is concerned, New Orleans' motivation remains high, regardless of playoff scenarios.
"As long as there are games to be played there are games to be won," Evans said. "It's never too late to play well."