At noon Sunday, tens of thousands of New Orleanians will flip the channel to the Panthers-Falcons game.
They’ll keep vigil over whether Atlanta (4-11) can upset visiting Carolina (11-4) and give the Saints (10-5) the opportunity to swipe the NFC South crown, the No. 2 seed in their conference, a first-round bye and the right to host at least one playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they’re unbeaten the past 16 times Sean Payton has coached them there.
But there will be a handful of folks ignoring that game. And chief among them will be some of the Saints themselves.
“I guarantee ... I’m not going to watch,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who’s third on his team in sacks with 4.5. “You have to control the things you can control.”
And what the Saints control is whether they qualify for the playoffs by their own hand. If they beat a visiting Tampa Bay team that’s 4-11 and 1-6 on the road, at the very least they’re in the postseason as a wild-card team.
If they fail at that, they’ll need the 10-5 Arizona Cardinals — who last week became the first team to travel to Seattle and beat the Seahawks (12-3) there in 15 games — to lose at home against San Francisco (11-4). Otherwise, the Saints will miss the postseason, and a year that began with a five-game winning streak will end ignominiously.
All of which makes the Saints perceive Sunday’s contest against the Bucs as the first of what they hope will be multiple elimination games this season.
“I know I don’t care about the Arizona (or Carolina-Atlanta) game,” said linebacker Junior Galette, second on the team with a career-high 10 sacks. “We have to go into this game with a win-or-go-home, playoff mentality. Why not worry only about the things which you can control? And that’s beating Tampa and getting this playoff berth.
“Until we do that, nothing else matters.”
No, nothing else does. And as has been the case more than once this year, fate intervened to make the circumstances ahead of this pivotal game less than ideal for the Saints.
Three days after losing 17-13 at Carolina and ceding control of the division, the Saints officially placed rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro on season-ending injured reserve with a fractured fibula he sustained during the Panthers game.
The productive Vaccaro — who was No. 3 on the Saints in tackles (79) to go with a sack, an interception and six pass breakups — was New Orleans’ third key defensive back this year to be sent to IR, joining cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer.
However, with the same zeal they say they’ll ignore Carolina’s and Arizona’s games this weekend, the Saints have avoided reflecting on just how big of a gap Vaccaro will leave on Sunday and — they hope — beyond.
Asked to comment on Vaccaro’s absence, safety Malcolm Jenkins admitted the first-round pick’s production would be sorely missed. But he quickly alluded to the fact that he, Roman Harper, Vaccaro, backup Isa Abdul-Quddus and backup Rafael Bush had all taken turns sitting out games with injuries before Vaccaro’s fracture, and all had not fallen apart for New Orleans.
Harper was inactive for seven games with an injured knee, and the Saints won five of them. Jenkins was shelved for two games with a hurt knee, and the Saints split them. Vaccaro had a concussion and missed the 49ers game, the Saints’ toughest outing at the Superdome — yet New Orleans won.
Quddus missed four games with a hurt ankle, all of which the Saints won. Bush has missed the past three games with a high right ankle sprain, and the Saints have lost two of them — but he returned to practice in a full capacity this week.
“We’ve had injuries to all our safeties this year, and our backup guys ... have come in and played well,” Jenkins said. “We’re very confident in the guys that are coming to step up. That’s what a team is for.”
There’s no doubt losing Vaccaro made losing to Carolina harder to stomach. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called the rookie “the best safety in the league that does everything,” and he said multiple players would need to split up his jobs.
And there’s no doubt the Saints would rather be at home for the playoffs than on the road, where they’re 3-5 this year and have never won in the postseason. But pardon the Saints if they don’t feel as sorry for themselves as some of their fans do.
“You go into offseason workouts, training camps, and (32 teams) are working just to get into the (postseason),” Jenkins said. “We have that opportunity, so ... the team’s very optimistic.”
Galette fancies the outlook now much more than the one from last year, when Payton was still suspended from the team’s bounty scandal and the Saints were eliminated from playoff contention by the final week of the regular season.
“Bring on the five or six seed,” Galette said. “I remember the feeling I had last year ... knowing we had no chance of making the playoffs no matter what the scenario was.
“This? This is a good feeling.”