METAIRIE, La. (AP) Drew Brees happily entertains playoff possibilities for the New Orleans Saints, figuring that the question of whether a 5-6 team deserves to be in the NFC wild card race is irrelevant.
He has a point.
Despite an 0-4 start and their latest loss on Sunday to San Francisco, New Orleans remains one game out with five games left. To Brees, that means the Saints are virtually in control of their playoff fate - even if that is not entirely the case.
``Regardless of how this season started, that seems like so long ago,'' Brees said Monday, a day after New Orleans saw its three-game winning streak snapped. ``We've just come so far since then. We really have everything lined right in front of us. Despite everything, we've got it all right in front of us. We really control our own destiny.''
Had the Saints prolonged their winning streak against the NFC West-leading Niners, they would have arrived at work on Monday tied for the final NFC Wild Card spot at 6-5 because Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay - the teams New Orleans is chasing - all lost on Sunday.
So the Saints head to their Thursday night showdown at NFC South Division rival Atlanta (10-1) still alive for a postseason berth, but with minimal room for error and a tough schedule ahead.
New Orleans will need Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay to lose. Of those teams, only the Buccaneers appear on the Saints' remaining schedule.
``The margin for error is very slight right now. We've kind of used up our nine lives,'' Brees said. ``So we've got to really bear down here and just understand what's at stake every time we step on the field.''
After New Orleans visits Atlanta, its next game is at the NFC East-leading New York Giants, which will cap a string of three straight games against NFC division leaders.
For Brees, even the loss to San Francisco was an indication of how far the Saints have come since stumbling from their offseason bounty scandal to an early season losing streak.
The Saints held a 14-7 lead late in the first half before the Niners returned two interceptions for touchdowns. The Saints still rallied for another touchdown and remained very much in the game in the second half.
``It's tough because I know we played well enough to win in so many ways and yet, two plays like that can just completely change the outcome of a game, which obviously those did. I was really encouraged walking away from that game in a lot of ways,'' Brees said. ``I feel like we can beat that team, should beat that team. But listen, they're really, really good. They're going to be in the hunt just like we want to be in the hunt. We might see them later on. For us, it's a short week. We've got to be able to turn it right around.''
Meanwhile, the Saints' defense, although still ranked last in the NFL, continued showing improvement, giving up a relatively few 17 points to the 49ers' offense and allowing fewer than 400 total yards for the first time all season.
``The defensive guys came out and played with the right attitude,'' first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said, adding that there is ``more confidence in our room than before.
``We need to carry that into Atlanta because this is another good offense that we're facing and we don't have a lot of time to prepare,'' Spagnuolo continued. ``We are getting better as a unit. It is coming together. There's no question. Guys are making plays. They're more comfortable. There's more reacting than reading. A lot less tentative play.''
Before losing to the Niners, the Saints had rallied to even their record at 5-5 and re-establish themselves as realistic playoff hopefuls.
``I feel no differently about our football team right now than I did yesterday morning when we woke up and (had) won five of our previous six games,'' assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. ``This team works hard. This team is together. This team does not point fingers. We are moving on.''
Brees noted that when a good team loses, it can't wait to get back on the field, so that is what is good about playing on Thursday night.
However, it leaves less time to recover from injuries - and New Orleans had a few.
Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, a reserve who plays regularly, left the game after a heavy collision over the middle with Niners tight end Delanie Walker. Coaches said Abdul-Quddus is due for some concussion testing this week and his status for Thursday is unclear.
Also out Thursday will be rookie right tackle Bryce Harris, who left the first quarter of his first start on Sunday with a lower right leg injury. Harris had been pressed into a starting role following injuries to regular starter Zach Strief (left groin) and his backup, Charles Brown (right knee).
Harris' injury forced Will Robinson, signed to the roster last week, to step in.
Vitt said Strief could be ready on Thursday. Still, the Saints were bringing in several free-agent linemen for tryouts, Vitt said.