Playoff bye something new for the Saints

Published 8:13 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This is new territory for the New Orleans Saints and their rookie coach.

With a game to go, they have not only clinched the NFC South, they have guaranteed themselves a bye in the playoffs.

“This is the first time I’ve been in this position,” coach Sean Payton said on Tuesday. “Not just as a head coach, but period.”

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New Orleans, thanks to a victory over the New York Giants and a loss by the Dallas Cowboys, gained a first-round bye and will host a divisional playoff game Jan. 13 or 14.

In the 40-year history of the franchise, the Saints (10-5) have qualified for the postseason six times and won once. Following the 2000 season, New Orleans beat the St. Louis Rams for its only postseason victory, then followed with a 34-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Payton was the offensive coordinator with the Giants when they won their division, a bye and went to the Super Bowl in 2000. But that year, New York had to win its final regular-season game to lock up the bye.

The Saints close out the season Sunday in the Superdome against the Carolina Panthers, which leaves Payton with some big decisions. Like who plays and who sits out.

“You can make an argument that it’s no different from the fourth preseason game,” Payton said. Traditionally, coaches like to rest star players during the final preseason game to keep them healthy for the opener.

He wants to play well and win the final game, but Payton is also worries about injuries to key players. Thoughts of Drew Brees taking a low hit, Reggie Bush as an airborne target, Deuce McAllister making a bad cut and hearing something in his leg pop are enough to keep Payton up nights.

And then there’s the schedule.

Should he give the players time off right after Sunday’s game or is it better to wait until later in the week? Will they be rested or rusty if he makes the wrong choice?

“We always like to tweak things a little bit,” Payton said. “But I haven’t decided just how we’ll do it yet.”

For Saints players who survived last season — compiling a 3-13 record after relocating to San Antonio and playing every game on the road following Hurricane Katrina — this year has been almost as big a thrill as it has been for the fans.

“I haven’t won 10 games since high school,” McAllister said. “This is definitely a special feeling to be able to walk onto the field after last year, with some of the things we went through, and come away with a ’W.”’

Among the long-suffering fans there is a sense of disbelief.

“I never thought I’d live this long,” said Sam Campbell. “This makes up for a lot of bad things everyone around here has been through over the years.”

The Saints returned this year to a badly battered city eager for a break from the problems the big storm left behind. Eager fans established a milestone by buying every ticket. When playoff tickets became available, lines formed outside the team’s offices.

One of the team’s goals was to play better not just for the organization, but for the city, Payton said. In turn, he feels the fans have spurred his team to new heights. It’s one of the reasons he’s excited about playing in the Superdome in the postseason.

“We’re looking forward to having that home-field advantage,” he said. “They’ve made a difference before, they can make it again.”

As for the Saints’ dismal postseason history, Payton hasn’t given it a thought.

“They’ve never had a first-round bye before,” he said. “So much for history, right?”