If the New Orleans Saints were in the AFC, they'd still have faint hope for a playoff berth.
But in the uber-competitive NFC, their 3-5 record buries any chance the team has of pulling off a miracle playoff run, despite an impressive 28-13 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football.
But despite a terrible defense and the prospects of missing the postseason for the first time since 2008, the Saints and their fans still have reasons to be optimistic.
The first and most obvious reason is that their defense simply can't get any worse. This means you won't see too many stops unless New Orleans is playing a team that is known for shooting themselves in the foot (like Philadelphia).
The defense will get better in 2013, as the Saints will have a high first-round pick in a draft that is top-heavy with defensive difference-makers who could help spark a quick turnaround.
The next reason is Drew Brees. The Saints are never out of a game as long as Brees is at the helm. This means eight more games of exciting football, and while the Saints won't win every game (which would be the optimal result), every game will be an exciting one.
Two of those games come against their chief NFC South rival, the Atlanta Falcons—which is actually a reason for optimism. Atlanta stands at 8-0 right now, but since Brees signed with New Orleans, the Saints have owned Atlanta, sporting a 10-2 record against the Falcons since 2006.
The first Falcons-Saints game comes in Week 10 in the Superdome (where the Falcons have only won once during the aforementioned time frame), and with the Saints coming off a great effort against Philadelphia, they should be especially amped up to end Atlanta's chances of finishing the season undefeated.
The Falcons won't be the only team the Saints could play spoiler to, as they will also have the chance to single-handedly keep their other primary NFC South rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, out of the playoffs. The Saints already have a victory in Week 7 in Tampa, and they will host the Bucs in Week 15.
There's a good chance that the Bucs will come into the game needing a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive. A Saints win could very well eliminate Tampa Bay.
The big elephant in the room however is the contract status of suspended head coach Sean Payton, who's extension was voided on Sunday by the NFL (per ESPN.com's Adam Schefter). But the truth of this matter reveals the biggest reason for optimism, as explained by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:
Payton's contract now is scheduled to end in 2012, but that doesn't mean he'll automatically be a coaching free agent after this season. A source familiar with how the NFL operates in these situations cast doubt to NFL.com and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport on if Payton would be a free agent. Lombardi also reported that many people in the league believe Payton's contract will carry over—or "toll"—into the 2013 season.
Payton would go on to tell FOX Sports' Jay Glazer (per NFL.com): "I absolutely plan on being a New Orleans Saint."
Despite the nightmare that was 2012, there's still plenty of reasons for Saints fans to be optimistic going forward. Wins over rivals could add excitement to the season, and with a great draft and the return of Sean Payton, 2012 will look more like a minor bump in the road than a season of disaster.