Saints’ aim becomes 8-8 finish

New Orleans Saints head coach Joe Vitt watches the action against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
New Orleans Saints head coach Joe Vitt watches the action against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Sometimes even Santa can’t deliver what you want. For residents of Who Datville, that means no Saints in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

The Grinch stole whatever remote postseason opportunity existed at 3 p.m. Sunday, when Minnesota defeated Houston. That was about the time the Dallas Cowboys rallied with two late touchdowns to force overtime, during which Jimmy Graham’s hustling fumble recovery set up Garrett Hartley’s field goal that gave the Saints a 34-31 victory.

So there was one nice present for the Black & Gold Nation. But no more.

“No one with a white beard’s going to come down the chimney and hand us a divisional championship,” interim coach Joe Vitt said Monday.

Or even a wild-card berth.

But, Vitt emphasized, the Saints (7-8) have plenty to play for in Sunday’s finale against Carolina (6-9).

“We can’t look in the past,” he said. “But we can say to ourselves, ‘We have one more chance to get better’ because we won’t be playing football after this week.”

The Saints will try to close with a three-game regular-season winning streak, which would be their longest since the 2004 team won its final four, and to finish in sole possession of second place in the NFC South.

While 8-8 might not sound like much considering the franchise’s recent success, it’s worth noting that 27 of the previous 45 seasons ended with losing records.

“I think 8-8 sounds a lot better than 7-9,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “For everything we’ve gone though and every situation that’s come up and arisen this entire season, to get back to 8-8 would be very important to us and getting us rolling into next year.”

Even with an uncertain future. Vitt refused to address suspended coach Sean Payton’s contract situation, saying, “I’m not thinking one thing about that. My sole focus is on winning this football game. We have no long-term strategic plan from the coaching standpoint. That’s for another day and time.”

Plus, Carolina presents a challenge. Not only did the Panthers beat the Saints 35-27 back in Week 2, but they’ve won four of their past five, including a 17-6 victory Sunday against Oakland.

It’s not clear whether that will be enough to save second-year coach Ron Rivera, but Vitt said he expects the visitors’ best effort.

“They’re going to come in here and play as long as they can and as smart as they can,” he said. “They’re a team that’s full of pride, and Ron Rivera is a prideful coach.”

Vitt said the Saints will play their starters throughout instead of taking another look at some of the backups. And regardless of the outcome, Vitt called this team “one of my all-time favorites” of his 33 years in the NFL.

Still, Vitt would not speculate on how the Saints might have fared had they won one or two more games and made the playoffs, even as the No. 6 seed.

“I’m not going to deal with hypothetical questions,” he said. “If my aunt had a beard, she’d be my uncle.”

Or Santa.

Notes

Vitt said cornerback Jabari Greer, who left Sunday’s game with a possible concussion, was “better than we thought.” ... Drew Brees needs 219 passing yards to reach 5,000 for the third time in his career. There have been only three other 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history. ... Brees leads Detroit’s Matthew Stafford by 86 yards for most in the NFL (4,781). If he wins the yardage title, it would be his fourth, tying him for second with Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas and Dan Fouts, one behind Sonny Jurgensen and Dan Marino…. Brees’ 39 passing TDs also are tops in the league, four more than Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. If Brees wins that title, it would be his fourth, tying him with Unitas, Len Dawson, Brett Favre and Steve Young for most in league history. … Punter Thomas Morstead carries a 44.4-yard net punting average into the final game. The NFL record is 43.99.