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Now or never for the New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees and the Saints are struggling, but believe they have time to turn their season around. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

When the New Orleans Saints walk into the Superdome on Sunday night, they’ll be playing their most important game since Super Bowl XLIV.

They’ll play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers right off Poydras Street and not far from Bourbon Street. But the GPS says the Saints are at a different crossroads. By the end of the night, their season could be securely on the road to recovery or past the point of no return.

It’s that simple, really. Eight games into the season, we’re going to know if the Saints have any chance of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

“We knew that this journey was not going to be easy going through this season, and we knew that we would have peaks and valleys,’’ Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We just happen to be in one of those valleys. It feels like we’ve been in it for a while and we all want to get out of it.’’

It has to happen right now, because if the Saints don’t get out of the valley, it’s going to turn into a big hole. They’re 4-3 and coming off an embarrassing home loss to the Cleveland Browns. A .500 record at the midway point would mean the Saints would spend the second half of the season trying to catch up to the Atlanta Falcons, and maybe even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the NFC South standings.

A .500 record and a two-game losing streak would make a second-half schedule that doesn’t look that difficult suddenly appear very tough. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say the season and talk of “Two Dat’’ would end with a loss. But it wouldn’t be all that far off.

Time to hit the panic button?

“I think human nature might be to get down and be negative, point fingers, to feel like you need to press, put added pressure on yourself and I think we’re a lot more experienced than that,’’ Brees said. “We’ve been down this road before back in 2007. I think we have a pretty experienced team, so everybody’s encountered situations like this where you’re working your tails off and it doesn’t seem to be happening, but you just have to keep grinding. I think we’ll look back at this time as the season progresses.’’

One way or another, Brees is right. How the Saints respond to the Cleveland loss probably is going to determine what happens to them the rest of the season.

“We’ll look back at this seven-game stretch to start the season as a defining moment for our team,’’ Brees said. “You can only worry about the things that you can control, and obviously the past is past. But what we can control is how we react to what has happened, how we change the things we need to change to get back on track, how we respond and obviously how we carry ourselves to be very positive and very encouraging, and I feel like everybody’s on the same page there. Adversity equals opportunity. This is an opportunity for us to come back stronger, to come back better, to bring us together as a team. Maybe we’re going through things now earlier than expected in order to strengthen us for what we’re going to have to do at the end of the season.”

That all makes lots of sense. There are turning points in every season, and this game could be one for the Saints. They’re in a hole, in part because of a series of injuries at running back and cornerback. But the hole might not be all that deep. Players such as Reggie Bush, Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer appear to be close to getting healthy.

Throw them back into the lineup, clean up a few problem spots and it’s not impossible to imagine the Saints climbing out of the hole and heading straight for one of those peaks Brees talked about.

“We’re 4-3 and that’s the bad news,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “Yet, to some degree, what’s encouraging is that we haven’t played our best football and we’re a game off our division lead and a game off the NFC’s best record.”

Yes, with Brees looking nothing like he did a year ago, the offense not putting up anywhere near the points it did last season and the defense not nearly as opportunistic as it was a year ago, the Saints still are very much in the playoff picture.

As long as they’re in the playoff picture, there remains the possibility that they could get hot and roll to a Super Bowl repeat. With Brees and a talented roster, that’s not all that difficult to imagine. Everything could click at any time.

But that time almost has to be now, and there haven't been a lot of recent indications that the Saints are anything close to the team that won its first 13 games last season. At midseason, this game with the Steelers is Super Bowl XLIV1/2 for the Saints. They have to win this one to have any shot at Super Bowl XLV.

“I guess they don’t get any bigger than this, where the Pittsburgh Steelers, arguably one of the best teams in the NFL, are coming into our place on 'Sunday Night Football,' Halloween night, all the reasons why this game is a huge game,’’ Brees said. “We’ve played in a lot of these prime-time games where America’s watching. There’s no better time for us to go out and play great as a team and get back on track with a win.”

It’s now or never for the Saints.