Rabalais: Sean Payton raises the stakes; Saints can’t hold ’em

Sean Payton took all of his chips and shoved them on top of Bank of America Stadium’s NFL logo at midfield. He threw his watch and his trademark white visor onto the pile just to raise the stakes even more.

There was nothing else for the Saints coach to do after his team turned in a miserable, maddening performance last Sunday at St. Louis, dropping New Orleans into a virtual winner-take-all duel with the Carolina Panthers. Their fate was reduced to one soggy, decisive World Series of Poker episode.

In the biggest gamble since New Coke, Payton benched starting left tackle Charles Brown in favor of Terron Armstead, a rookie so untested (zero previous offensive snaps) he was still wrapped in plastic. He fired place-kicker Garrett Hartley and brought in Shayne Graham, who hadn’t gotten in any NFL kicks since last year’s playoffs with the Houston Texans. He tried trick plays, like an onside kick that worked and a fake field goal that failed.

“We didn’t hold anything back,” Drew Brees said.

Despite Brees being sacked six times, including one in the first quarter that prompted Payton to punt instead of sending Graham out for a 56-yarder in a scoreless contest, the Saints were poised for an NFC South-clinching victory after an epic 97-yard touchdown drive. Brees dropped back, peeked over the onrushing Panthers and lobbed a 5-yard jump-ball touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham, the kind of pass put in just the kind of place that only the former Miami Hurricanes basketball player can come down with it.

The Saints led 13-10 with 6:37 left. Victory hung in the misty air for the Saints to grab, wrapping their burly arms around the division title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They were going to overcome their offensive line deficiencies and the Panthers and the stormy elements (Gasp! Actual weather!) and fulfill a destiny that seemed theirs for the taking after a 5-0 start.

Then one of the Saints’ dice tumbled over the edge. Pay the line turned to craps. For the love of Jake Delhomme, it was Cam Newton and the Panthers who came charging back to write their own glory-filled chapter in the thin volume that is Carolina’s history of greatness. It was their lightning-quick 65-yard drive, culminating with Domenik Hixon’s diving 14-yard grab in the end zone, that landed the winning blow with 23 seconds left.

High risk, high reward. One of the most meaningful regular-season victories ever for the Saints or bitter failure. That’s the game they were forced to play here Sunday. Do or die. Or, in racing parlance since we’re in NASCAR country, pull off the pass coming off Turn 4 or wind up in the fence.

The Saints weren’t so badly mangled by Sunday’s 17-13 defeat that they have to be towed back to their garage in Metairie, but their front fender is dented and their left rear wheel is wobbly. Their playoff hopes aren’t totaled, but steering this vehicle back onto the road to Super Bowl XLVIII just became a much more difficult proposition.

New Orleans can still win the NFC South and claim the No. 2 NFC playoff seed if it beats 4-11 Tampa Bay at home (in the Saints’ unbeaten lair, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome) and Carolina loses at Atlanta. Suddenly — perhaps distastefully for many Saints fans — they will find themselves rooting for the hated Falcons. The enemy of their enemy will become their friend, for one Sunday afternoon at least.

The Saints could still miss the playoffs entirely, though it would require a loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday. It’s highly improbable, but no stranger perhaps than the fact that it’s even possible for the Saints to have started 5-0 and miss the playoffs while Carolina could start 1-3 and could still wind up with the No. 1 NFC playoff seed (if Seattle stumbles again and San Francisco wins the NFC West).

Afterward, the emotions in the Saints’ locker room were a conflicted muddle of crushing disappointment ...

“You just lost,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “It’s a terrible mood. It leaves you sick to your stomach.”

… and defiant optimism.

“The message is positive,” said Payton, his tone a 180-degree departure from what it was in St. Louis a week earlier. “It’s tough. It’s disappointing. It didn’t happen. We’ll bounce back. These guys are resilient.”

Just get to the playoffs is the Saints’ new mantra. Then look out.

“It hurts,” Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said, “but three of the last four Super Bowl champions took the hard route. If that’s what we’ve got to do to win it, that’s what we’ll do.”

The big gray cloud on the Saints’ horizon is the fact that if they are a wild-card team they have to play on the road. A quick flip through their playoff history shows the road is a place where the Saints have never won.

That’s what made Sunday’s game so important. What made the gambles not only worth taking, but necessary. And what ultimately made the Panthers pulling so many of the Saints’ chips off the table so painful for New Orleans to watch.