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NFL: Panthers visit Saints today

By Brett Martel
Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton has spent the past year regretting how he handled the Saints’ 2010 regular-season finale.
He hopes he can get it right this time when New Orleans (12-3) hosts the Carolina Panthers (6-9).
As the 2011 season comes to a close, Payton’s dilemma is similar to one he faced when the Saints closed out last season with a loss to Tampa Bay that turned out to have no effect on playoff seeding, but was costly nonetheless because of injuries to emerging tight end Jimmy Graham, starting safety Malcolm Jenkins and then-leading rusher Chris Ivory.
The next week, the short-handed Saints opened the playoffs in Seattle and went home with a loss.
Today, the Saints could climb as high as the No. 2 seed in the NFC — worth a bye and a second-round home game — if they win, but only if heavily favored San Francisco also loses at 2-13 St. Louis.
While Payton has been known to say one thing during the week and do another on game day, it sounds as though he’s preparing top players for significant action — regardless of out-of-town scores — with the aim of riding the momentum of an eight-game winning streak into the playoffs.
“We talked about it at length,” Payton said. “We’re going to play all of our guys. There’s still seeding at stake. I know it’s similar to a year ago. 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.”
There are also matters of pride.
The Saints’ offense has been a history-making group this season. Drew Brees last Monday night took over the NFL single-season record for yards passing with 5,087, eclipsing Dan Marino’s 1984 mark of 5,084.
Although it took 27 years for Marino’s mark to fall, New England’s Tom Brady is one game away from passing Brees if the Saints quarterback either doesn’t play well or sits out a significant portion of the game against Carolina.
Meanwhile, the Saints also are only 219 yards from breaking the 2000 Rams’ NFL record 7,075 offensive yards in a season.
The Saints also have a chance to finish a regular season with a perfect home record for the first time.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he will prepare for New Orleans’ best, but would understand if Payton played it safe and limited playing time for some of his stars.
“They’ve got a chance to do all those things, but he’s got to look at what happened last year (when) they had a couple guys getting nicked up before their playoff game,” Rivera said. “He’s got to make a decision and whatever decision he makes is what he believes is right for his team. Believe me, it’s a hard decision, too.”
Rivera is thinking about next season, which looks increasingly promising for his club. Quarterback Cam Newton has set a rookie record with 3,893 yards passing and the Panthers have the third-best running game in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and the dynamic Newton leading the way.
Earlier this season, the Panthers were competitive in several close loses which got away from them in crunch time. Lately, they’ve been able to close out games, winning four of five.
“It’s just kind of things developing and coming together and our maturing process,” Rivera said, adding that a win over the Saints could send his players into the offseason with the belief that they’re on the cusp of contention.
“You can help set a tempo for your team going into next year by playing well against a playoff-caliber team.”
Payton and Brees agreed that recent game film of Carolina shows a team that has improved since narrowly losing to the Saints 30-27 in October.
Payton said Newton is a unique quarterback whose running ability is nearly impossible to simulate in practice. The Saints coach added that he sees Newton as the top candidate for offensive Rookie of the Year.
Brees said Carolina’s recent ascent is all the more reason for the Saints to take Sunday’s game seriously.
“We understand how good this Carolina team is coming here and how even though we don’t necessarily control our own destiny … our mindset is we want to go into the playoffs playing our best football,” Brees said. “We don’t feel like we did that last year.”

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