December 16, 2011
In two of the three postseason appearances they’ve made under Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints took care of business and wrapped up their playoff berth with time to spare.
They didn’t necessarily know their seeding, of course, but they were in.
While it’s important to get it out of the way, the biggest thing when you’re coming down to the final few games of the regular season is making sure you’re focused on the task at hand and a strong finish.
In their final four games of their playoff years, however, the Saints went 2-2 in 2006 and ‘10 and were 1-3 with three consecutive losses to close out 2009 - which didn’t stop them from winning Super Bowl XLIV.
To be fair, at least two of those season-ending losses could be attributed to Payton resting many of his starters and keeping them healthy for games that really counted.
Still, remaining focused is one of the reasons Payton wasn’t getting too excited about the Saints possibly clinching a playoff berth on Sunday and joining the undefeated Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers - who have already reserved their spots.
A win by the 9-3 Saints over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday and a loss by the Atlanta Falcons would give the Saints the NFC South title and at least one home playoff game.
If the Saints and Falcons both win, the Saints can still punch their playoff ticket by clinching at least a wild-card spot if either the Chicago Bears or Detroit Lions lose.
But playoff scenarios were the last thing on Payton’s mind this week. The 7-5 Titans, who are very much alive in the playoff hunt in the AFC, were.
“We’re at that point in the year where you start getting into (playoff) scenarios,” Payton said. “But it’s about this game and this challenge.
“One of the things we’ve been able to do is kind of let those scenarios take care of themselves,” he said. “I know the scenario this week starts with us having to win. I think that’s where the focal point is, and I think we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Naturally, it’s always more satisfying to earn a playoff berth with a win instead of getting in because another team or teams lose.
Which is where the focus and motivation come in, Drew Brees said.
“I think we’ve been locked in and focused, especially since we know the fourth quarter of the season is coming up,” he said. “There’s a lot of football left to be played and a lot of progress to be made.
“The opportunity with a win and an Atlanta loss to win the division, that’s one of the first steps in achieving our goals.”
Still, they’re not there yet even though they might be playing their best football since winning the Super Bowl.
“It’s hard to say,” Payton said. “There was a stretch last year where we won six games in a row. There’s a time to evaluate if you’re playing your best. As a coach, it’s vital that you don’t succumb to the idea that we’ve arrived.”