Saints set focus on winning NFC South

Associated Press photo by SCOTT EKLUNDNew Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees passes during warmups against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2 in Seattle.
Associated Press photo by SCOTT EKLUNDNew Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees passes during warmups against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2 in Seattle.

Although the Saints’ hopes for home-field advantage throughout the NFL playoffs likely went bye-bye in a dismal 34-7 loss to Seattle on Monday night, they still have the inside track to a bye in the first round.

The key is bouncing back quickly on a short week and being emotionally ready for streaking NFC South co-leader Carolina on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints have been every bit as dominant this season as the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.

New Orleans is 6-0 at home, winning by an average of 17.1 points.

“We got up there (to Seattle) and we got whooped,” said quarterback Drew Brees, whose streak of 43 games with at least 200 passing yards ended. “We have to be able to move past that and certainly not let it linger and focus on the here and now. This game is the most important of the season.

“It’s a divisional opponent at home and one that is vying for the same thing we are — a divisional championship.”

With a win against Carolina, New Orleans would reclaim sole possession of first place in the South. The Saints could even afford a loss to the Panthers in the Charlotte rematch on Dec. 22 and still clinch the division by winning at 5-7 St. Louis on Dec. 15 and at home against 3-9 Tampa Bay on Dec. 29.

If Carolina also finished 12-4, New Orleans would win the tiebreaker based on conference record. Barring an epic Seattle collapse, the Saints would earn the No. 2 seed and a bye in the NFC playoffs.

“Winning the division is very important,” tackle Zach Strief said. “It’s always our first goal as a team.

“You can’t do any of that other stuff without winning the division.”

Recent history says the No. 1 seed is not all it is cracked up to be. Take out the Saints’ Super Bowl win as the NFL’s top seed in 2009, and NFC No. 1 seeds have, incredibly, won only one playoff game since 2006.

Dallas went 13-3 in 2007 before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs to the New York Giants.

The Giants went 13-3 in 2008 and were 7-1 at home before losing 23-11 to Philadelphia in the divisional round.

Atlanta went 13-3 in 2010 and was 7-1 in the Georgia Dome before getting blitzed by Green Bay 48-21 in the divisional round.

Green Bay went 15-1 in 2011 and was undefeated at Lambeau Field before losing 37-20 to the Giants.

The Falcons finally ended the string of nightmare performances by No. 1 seeds last year, going 13-3 and eking out a 30-28 victory against Seattle in the divisional round before falling to San Francisco 28-24 in the NFC Championship game.

Although the picture doesn’t look pretty at the moment for the Saints in a potential rematch with the Seahawks in Seattle for the NFC Championship game, circumstances can change quickly.

New Orleans middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was with Atlanta in 2010 when the Falcons fell apart against the Packers, who entered the playoffs with a 10-6 record after two must-wins at the end of the regular season.

“It’s more important how you’re playing going into the playoffs than having home-field advantage,” Lofton said. “Green Bay, they were hot. We just want to catch fire the last four games, and wherever we fall, we just want to go out and play good football.”

The first order of business is beating Carolina, which has won eight in a row since a 1-3 start and boasts the second-ranked defense in the NFL behind Seattle.

The Saints began practicing Thursday for the Panthers instead of the normal Wednesday start for a Sunday game, giving themselves another 24 hours to recover on a short week.

“The amount of time needed between practice and a game is probably overrated, and the amount of time needed from the game to practice is underrated,” Strief said. “That’s the period where you get your bodies back, and at the end of the day as the week goes, you get yourself back. Even though you’re practicing, you get more and more loosened up. This is the right thing for us, and we’ve responded well to it.”

The extra 71/2 hours the Saints gained when the Carolina game was moved to prime time from its originally scheduled noon start should benefit them, too.

“Every hour helps on a short week,” Strief said. “We’ve walked into every game this year feeling good, and this week will be no different.”