After clinching the NFC South title with a 45-16 blowout of the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night, Sean Payton and the Saints find themselves in almost the same exact spot they were in a year ago.
With their eye on the upcoming playoffs again, the only difference is the Saints are going to the postseason as a division champion this time rather than as a wild-card entrant.
The similarities come into play as the Saints (12-3) prepare for the regular-season finale with the Carolina Panthers (6-9) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Payton and his coaching staff are faced with nearly the same dilemma they had to deal with last season: How to approach a game in which they have almost nothing to gain and a lot more to lose -- as in frontline players.
There's one carrot dangling out there for the Saints, and, after not being so sure Tuesday, Payton has decided it's worth the risk to go after.
While they're going to be no worse than the No. 3 seed for the playoffs, the Saints could still earn the second spot if they beat the Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers, also 12-3, were to be tripped by the 2-13 St. Louis Rams. Both games kick off at the same time.
Last season, the Saints had a similar problem when they were chasing the Falcons for the No. 1 seed. Playing their finales at the same time, the Saints needed to beat the Tampa Bay Bucs and have the Falcons lose to the Panthers -- which required some scoreboard-watching.
Not so this time, Payton said Wednesday, even though he lost tight end Jimmy Graham, free safety Malcolm Jenkins and running back Chris Ivory to injuries by the time the Falcons put the Panthers away. None of them were available for the wild-card playoff game at Seattle.
Payton, who wrapped up his third division title in six seasons on Monday night, didn't have an answer Tuesday. But he did Wednesday, making a decision he said he shared with his players earlier in the day.
"We talked about it at length," Payton said. "Our approach is going to be much like it has been: We're going to play all of our guys. There's still seeding at stake.
"I know it's similar to a year ago. (But) I think we're getting better as a team week to week right now, and there's a value in that. That progress might be something we need going into this postseason. I'd like to think it's something we need."
SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 17-16, even though the Saints have claimed five of the last eight matchups dating to the 2007 season. The Saints won the first meeting of the NFC South rivals, 30-27, on Oct. 9 in Charlotte and are seeking their second straight season sweep after taking both games in 2010 by a combined score of 50-17.
--After breaking Dan Marino's 27-year-old NFL record for single-season passing yards Monday night, it's possible that Drew Brees' mark could be surpassed a lot quicker.
Brees is just 190 yards ahead of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady going into Sunday's regular-season finale, and it's possible that Brees might not play the entire game when the Saints play the Carolina Panthers.
Brady, on the other hand, should get a solid opportunity to move ahead of Brees because the Patriots need to win their game with the Buffalo Bills to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Saints coach Sean Payton announced Wednesday that he will play his regulars, but there's no guarantee that they'll play the whole game if the San Francisco 49ers are blowing out the St. Louis Rams and are on the way to clinching the No. 2 seed that the Saints are still hopeful of earning.
"I'm not really aware of the space between (Brees and Brady)," Payton said Tuesday. "I'm probably better off not knowing."
--As he did late Monday night, Payton shrugged off mild criticism Tuesday for having Brees throw the ball in the final five minutes of a 45-16 bashing of the Atlanta Falcons.
Leading at that point by 22 points, Brees went back into the game needing 30 yards to break Marino's record. He got 32 and the record on a six-play drive that included five passes.
His last pass, a 9-yard touchdown strike to running back Darren Sproles with 2:51 to play, got Brees past Marino and apparently riled up some Falcons in the process.
"You go with your gut," Payton said. "I thought it was the right decision last night. This morning (Tuesday), I thought it was clearly the right decision.
"I felt overwhelmingly that most people that are involved in this game, and know a little bit about this game, probably felt the same way. The great thing about our game is that you can have an opinion about it."
--Brees was named Wednesday as the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season and a club-record 13th time with the Saints.
Brees completed 23 of 39 passes for 307 yards and four touchdowns to run his season total to 5,087 yards and break Dan Marino's 27-year-old single-season passing record.
Brees also claimed the NFC's weekly honor following a Week 7 win over the Indianapolis Colts and a Week 12 victory over the New York Giants.
--The Saints go into Sunday's game against the Panthers with an 0-5 record in regular-season finales under Payton since he took over in 2006.
Two of those losses came when the Saints had no chance to improve their playoff seeding in 2006 and 2009 and last season's 23-13 setback to the Tampa Bay Bucs came after the Saints cleared their bench early.
The Saints are 0-3 in season finales against the Panthers since Payton became head coach.
--The seven-game winning streak the Saints will take into Sunday's game is the second-longest under Payton.
His longest winning streak, which is also the club record, came when the Saints won their first 13 games in 2009.
--With his second extra point of Monday night's game with the Falcons, Saints kicker John Kasay broke the franchise's single-season record for scoring.
Kasay, who was signed late in training camp when Garrett Hartley was lost for the season, went into the game with 129 points -- one shy of the old mark of 130 set by John Carney in 2002. Kasay now has 138 points.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- NFC South titles won by Saints coach Sean Payton in six seasons with the club. Prior to Payton's arrival, the Saints won two division crowns (1991 NFC West, 2000 NFC West) in the first 39 years of the franchise's existence.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I guess we could cut (the ball) up and give it to them (his teammates) all. The ball itself is not as important to me as the memory we created, because that is something that will live forever." -- Saints QB Drew Brees, on the ball used for the pass that broke Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Saints have been pretty fortunate with injuries this season, but the one spot they couldn't afford one was at tight end where backup David Thomas is on injured reserve after suffering two concussions earlier this season.
Veteran John Gilmore, who moved into the No. 2 spot behind Jimmy Graham, apparently hurt a toe in the win over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
As a result, they signed Tory Humphrey, who knows the offense from a couple of past stints with the team, for this week's game with the Carolina Panthers as the only other tight end on the active roster is undrafted rookie Michael Higgins.
--RB Chris Ivory will likely continue to get practice reps even if Mark Ingram returns this week as coach Sean Payton wants to make sure all four of his halfbacks are ready for the playoffs.
--TE Tory Humphrey was signed to add depth with TE John Gilmore, who injured a toe Monday night, questionable at best for this week's game.
--T William Robinson, a former practice-squad player who didn't play in his five games on the active roster, was cut to make room for TE Tory Humphrey.
--RB Joique Bell was signed off the Saints' practice squad Tuesday by the Detroit Lions.
--RB Chris Taylor, who was in training camp with the Saints this summer, was signed to the practice squad to replace RB Joique Bell.
--WR Andy Tanner, a first-year player who's been on and off the practice squad this season, was signed once again Wednesday.
--QB Sean Canfield was released from the practice squad to open up a spot for WR Andy Tanner.
--MLB Jonathan Vilma (knee) was held out of practice Wednesday as he has on occasion since having arthroscopic surgery last month, and it's not known if he'll play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
--WR Lance Moore (hamstring) did not work Wednesday after aggravating his injury in Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons, and his status for Sunday's game was unknown.
--FS Malcolm Jenkins (neck) didn't participate in Wednesday's practice and his availability for the game with the Panthers was not known.
--TE John Gilmore (toe) was kept out of practice Wednesday and it's not known if he'll be able to go against the Panthers.
--RB Mark Ingram (turf toe) participated in practice on a limited basis for the first time since the injury that has sidelined him for the past three games.
--LB Jonathan Casillas (knee) had full participation in Wednesday's practice and appears to be ready to return after missing the last three games.
--CB Patrick Robinson (hip) was able to practice fully Wednesday and should be able to play against the Panthers.
GAME PLAN: In their final game before the playoffs, the Saints will want to continue to work on balancing their offense for the postseason run. Going against the Panthers will afford them an opportunity to do both as Carolina currently ranks 21st against the run and pass, which should provide a good test for Drew Brees and the passing game as well as Sean Payton's deep stable of halfbacks.
Defensively, the Saints have given up a lot of yards in the second half of the season, and they'll certainly get a playoff-type test against the Panthers and their potent offensive attack. The ability to keep quarterback Cam Newton from hurting them with his arm and legs would be the first priority, but the Saints must also contend with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Saints front seven vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton. The Saints' offense helped out their defense in the first meeting in Charlotte when it played ball-control, resulting in only 53 offensive snaps for the Panthers. That kept Newton from doing what he does best, creating opportunities for himself and his offense, and held him to 224 passing yards and 27 rushing yards -- numbers the Saints' defense would gladly take again Sunday.
Saints LCB Jabari Greer vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith. Over the years, Smith has hurt the Saints with some big plays as he did in their first game when he caught a 54-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But the Saints, who have struggled at times against the pass, locked down after that and held him to only two catches for 25 yards the remainder of the game.
Saints LT Jermon Bushrod vs. Panthers RDE Charles Johnson. Bushrod was voted to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday after playing solidly throughout the season against some of the league's premier pass-rushers. He'll get another big test Sunday as he tries to keep Johnson, who leads the Panthers with nine sacks, away from Drew Brees' back side.