The Saints can still improve their playoff position by one spot, if they beat the Panthers and the 49ers somehow lose to the Rams in St. Louis. (In the same way that the Saints, you know, somehow lost in St. Louis.) Both games will be played at the same time, which could prompt Saints coach Sean Payton to do some scoreboard-watching, given that two of his key players — cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham — suffered injuries in a meaningless regular-season finale in 2010.
The fact that quarterback Drew Brees sits only 190 yards ahead of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady raises the stakes. Since the Pats need to beat the Bills to claim the No. 1 seed (the other contenders, the Ravens and Steelers, play at 4:15 p.m. ET), Brady will likely play most if not all of the game, and he could easily swipe the record if Brees plays less than 60 minutes.
On Tuesday, Payton addressed the situation, ultimately explaining that he’ll make a decision later in the week. He dropped no specific hints as to the direction in which he’s leaning, but the bulk of his comments suggests that Brees and the rest of the regulars will play.
“I know I am twice shy when the ball comes near me on the sidelines,” Payton told the local media as to the possibility of getting gets injured in a meaningless game. “I have been bitten. I think we just have to be smart. We are playing well, with some momentum. Each year is different. We will look at that closely.”
Payton said he doesn’t know whether he’ll have someone keep an eye on the 49ers-Rams game. “Last year, we tried to go that route of paying attention to the game,” Payton said. “One of the challenges always is your roster to begin with. You guys know that. We sat players before. It’s always hard because you don’t really have enough. It’s not the preseason where you have 80, you only have 53. We will try to do what is best for the team.”
But is it best for the team to have Brees hold off Brady? Payton has a strong sense of history, but whether Brees holds the single-season passing yardage record for six days or 60 years has zero relevance to the team’s goals.
“I’m not really aware of the space between the two,” Payton said. “I am probably better off not knowing. That being said, what we have to do is keep playing. The playoffs are close. How do we put ourselves in the best position to play well and put ourselves in an opportunity to win a championship? That’s not always what is popular. Two years ago in 2009, a lot of people in this room criticized us for resting players at Carolina. It was what we needed to do as a team. You make decisions. They are not always right. You try to make them with the right things to help your team. Last night was one of those situations. This upcoming game will be one of those situations. It’s part of what we do. It’s part of coaching. It’s part of sport.”
Setting — and holding — records is part of what they do, too. If Payton didn’t know the space between the two players, he likely will. Even if he doesn’t know the number, he surely senses that it’s close enough to compel Brees to play a full game.
And so I’d be shocked if Brees and the rest of the starters don’t play a full game. With Brees unlikely to wrest the MVP award from Aaron Rodgers, setting — and keeping — that record arguably becomes more important to Brees, to Payton, and to the rest of the franchise.