If back during training camp you asked the Saints whether it’d be ideal for their coach to cut the team’s kicker and bench the starting left tackle with two games left in the regular season, all of them would say, “No.”
But ask them if they’d think it was ideal for them to have a chance to clinch their division, a first-round bye in the postseason and the right to host at least one playoff contest with two games left in the year. You’d get the opposite answer.
It is under those circumstances — imperfect yet perfect — that the 10-4 Saints visit the 10-4 Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. The Saints will win the NFC South as long as they score one more point than their divisional rival Panthers do, period.
They’ll secure the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs. They’ll automatically advance to the divisional round. And they’ll play that round at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they’re 7-0 this season and haven’t lost the last 16 games they’ve had coach Sean Payton on the sidelines (including a playoff).
“That’s the key — if somebody tells you, ‘Hey, in the second-to-last week of the season, you’re going to have a chance to win the division and get the two-seed in the NFC. Would you take it?’ You say, ‘Heck yeah. Let’s go. Let’s play,’” quarterback Drew Brees said this week.
“Here we are. We have that opportunity, and we want to make the most of it.”
If the Saints don’t make the most of it, the Panthers will avenge their 31-13 setback in New Orleans on Dec. 8 with a win on Sunday. Carolina will seize the reins of the NFC South. All the Panthers would need to do is subsequently travel to Atlanta and beat a Falcons team that right now is 4-10, and they’d win the NFC South.
In that case, the Saints would qualify for the postseason as long as they beat Tampa Bay (4-10) at the Superdome. They’d also make it with other results — notably, if Arizona (9-5) loses one more game, and on Sunday they play at Seattle, whose 12-2 record is the NFL’s best.
But if Carolina wins the NFC South, the Saints are forced to visit an opponent in the wildcard round. At this point, even the most casual of Saints fans can see how urgent it is for New Orleans to avoid that road trip.
The Saints have never won a wildcard, divisional or conference championship game away from New Orleans in their 47-year existence. This year, they’ve won just three of seven games on the road. They’ve dropped four of their last five away games ahead of their visit to Carolina, where the Panthers have won six straight and last lost in Week 1 by less than a touchdown to Seattle.
And so, in preparation for truly the biggest of the four or so “biggest games of the season” the Saints have already played this year, Payton unveiled some measures that were certainly drastic but not at all out of character.
Payton will not start four-year veteran Charles Brown at left tackle against the Panthers after Brown piled up more penalties and surrendered more quarterback sacks, hits and hurries than any other regular on the offensive line by a comfortable margin. In a disturbing 27-16 defeat to St. Louis last week, Brown drew a penalty that erased a Saints touchdown and led to a blocked field goal, and he let Rams defensive end Robert Quinn sack Brees twice, the second of which resulted in a lost fumble.
Payton also decided Garrett Hartley will no longer kick field goals for the Saints after missing eight of the 30 he attempted this year, leaving him among the NFL’s least-accurate kickers.
Instead of Brown, to safeguard Brees’ blindside, Payton is entrusting rookie Terron Armstead, the 75th overall pick of this year’s draft. The 6-foot-5, 304-pound Armstead ran the fastest 40-yard dash ever recorded at the NFL combine, but he’s only played 17 snaps of special teams so far.
Instead of Hartley, to kick any possible last-minute, game-winning field goals, Payton is entrusting free-agent acquisition Shayne Graham, a 14-year NFL veteran whose lifetime accuracy of 85.4 percent is more than four points better than Hartley’s but who also hasn’t kicked in a meaningful NFL game in more than 11 months.
Here’s the thing about Payton — he refuses to lose games for being too conservative. He may lose them for being wrong, but he won’t lose them because he’s afraid to be aggressive.
Payton’s decisions involving Armstead, Brown, Hartley and Graham are bold. They’re meant to give the Saints the best possible chance of snapping the Panthers’ home winning-streak and running off with the postseason spoils this game offers.
We’ll find out soon whether these aggressive moves will be remembered along the same vein as “Ambush,” the onside kick that sparked the Saints to run away with Super Bowl Bowl XLIV in the second half four years ago.
Or we’ll see if they’ll unfold more like that fourth-and-1 end-around to rookie tight end Josh Hill that was blown up for a loss of 8, helping to doom the Saints’ chances of coming back from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit at the New York Jets on Nov. 3.
Neither the Panthers nor the Saints were shy about sharing their visions for Sunday.
“Because so much is at stake ... to have it played in our stadium with our home crowd behind us, I think that really helps,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
Meanwhile, Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said, “There’s no way we’re going to come out there and lay an egg. We know what people say about us on the road. It’s not going to happen.”