Saints, Panthers want to finish strong

To some NFL fans, Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers is nothing more than an ordinary season finale between two teams going nowhere.

But listening to coaches and players this week, no one should get the impression that it’s going to be a ho-hum, let’s-get-this-thing-over-with kind of game.

The playoffs are out of the question, sure, but there is still a lot to play for when the Saints (7-8) and Panthers (6-9) meet at noon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

With both teams playing better in recent weeks, the game to them will be more like a mini-playoff matchup than a bothersome finish to a disappointing season.

The Saints, who got good news Friday night when suspended coach Sean Payton agreed to a multiyear contract extension with the team, have won seven of their past 11 games since an 0-4 start.

On the other hand, the Panthers have notched four wins in their past five games to rebound from a 2-8 record that had second-year coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat.

For the Saints, the motivation Sunday is to win and finish with a break-even record overall and 8-4 mark since their dreadful start. A win would also help them avoid their first losing season since 2007 and give them a second-place finish in the NFC South.

The Panthers, who had high expectations at the start of the season, could finish second in the division with a win and a loss by Tampa Bay to Atlanta. Carolina would hold the tiebreaker over New Orleans by virtue of a 35-27 Week 2 win over the Saints.

Sunday will certainly be different for the Saints, who, for the past three seasons, have gone into Week 17 with a playoff berth wrapped up.

But the goal is still the same, said quarterback Drew Brees.

“It makes you want to go out and play your absolute best and really feel good about our team,” he said of what they’re trying to accomplish, “for the way we were able to finish and the future despite not meeting some of the goals that we had for this season.

“We did kind of realign those (goals) a few weeks back, and I think that gives you something to feel good about — achieving those goals that you kind of re-established for yourself. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Saints are also hoping to build momentum for next season with Payton, now that his contract situation has been cleared up, due to return soon from his season-long bounty scandal suspension.

They’ve won their past two games after losing three in a row, which all but knocked them from playoff contention before they were eliminated last week while taking a 34-31 win over the Cowboys.

Brees, who needs 219 passing yards to reach 5,000 yards for the third time in the past five seasons, called the game against the Panthers the most important game of the season.

“Regardless of what happened last week, the week before, whatever, I want the lasting impression in people’s minds to be something really good,” Brees said. “We have one more game. I want it to be really good for this team, not only the result but the way we play. I want to be sharp.

“I want to be really good in the pass game, really good in the run game. A really great team effort. Get a win … go out feeling good.”

Saints interim coach Joe Vitt also stressed the importance of the game.

“Number one, they’re keeping score. … That’s important,” he said. “All of the guys on our team, when they’re playing Pop Warner and high school ball and college ball, they cross the white lines to win.

“So it really doesn’t change much when you get to this point. They’re keeping score, so it’s important. This team is a very prideful team and we’ve tried to get better every week.”

Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton knows how important it would be to be 8-8 rather than 7-9.

“It would show the character of this locker room and coaches,” he said. “With everything we’ve been through — to keep fighting and not give up and just keep pushing and pushing and have a chance to be 8-8, you have to take something from that.”

On the other side, Rivera will try to avoid a second straight 6-10 finish and possibly save his job at the same time.

“It’s a momentum game … you look to play well and look to win,” he said. “The obvious reason is because it’s just not about this season. It’s about what’s going forward. It’s about the future.”

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