Saints meet Panthers
Published 12:34 am Sunday, December 31, 2006
So the Saints have little to play for in a regular-season finale.
What else is new?
The same franchise that ended a hurricane-disrupted, vagabond 2005 season at 3-13 is now trying to figure out how to carry momentum and sharpness into the playoffs without getting anyone hurt.
It doesn’t help that the Saints (10-5) line up Sunday against the Carolina Panthers (7-8), an NFC South rival looking to avoid a losing season, regardless of whether the results of other games this weekend have ended their faint playoff hopes.
“We’re going in there to give it our best; 8-8 sounds a lot better than 7-9,” Panthers coach John Fox said.
The safest move for rookie coach Sean Payton may be to rest the starters as much as possible. Yet Payton worries about rustiness, given that the Saints will have next weekend off, having clinched the No. 2 playoff seeding in the NFC last weekend and the first-round bye that goes with it.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer,” Payton said. “It might be different for one position than another.”
The Saints’ first loss of the season came at Carolina in Week 4. It was the only divisional loss for New Orleans and one of only two losses on the road, the other coming at Pittsburgh.
If the Saints lose to Carolina again, they will prepare to host their first playoff game since the 2000 season knowing they were a mediocre 4-4 in the rebuilt Louisiana Superdome.
“I don’t think anyone in this locker room sees the game as being meaningless,” standout rookie receiver Marques Colston said. “This is a game we definitely want to go out and win. You obviously want to go into the playoffs with momentum and a high confidence level.”
Colston spoke as he cut off tape wrapped around his right ankle, which he sprained earlier this season. Yet Colston said the fact that he has recently returned to action is more of a reason to play against Carolina. Additional playing time will help him regain the form that had him leading the NFL in yards receiving before he missed nearly three full games, he said.
“Our coaching staff has done a great job making decisions to this point in the season, so that’s in their hands,” Colston said.
Drew Brees, whose league-leading 4,372 yards passing have been a crucial part of the Saints’ resurgence, also struggled with the concept of watching from the sideline while a sellout crowd in the dome looks to kick off New Year’s Eve celebrations by cheering on a Saints victory.
“You want to go out with a win,” Brees said. “You feel good after wins. You feel terrible after losses, no matter if it’s preseason or another time. They still mean something.”
The Panthers expected to have starting quarterback Jake Delhomme back after a three-game absence.
Delhomme, who had ligament damage in his right thumb, returned to practice this week and threw the ball effectively. Carolina lost two of the games he missed during a four-game losing streak that left the Panthers struggling to stay in the NFC wild-card race.
“We’ll see how he handles himself out there, but you can assume he’ll do an outstanding job,” wide receiver Steve Smith said. “It’s always good to have your guy back there and be confident knowing what he can do.”
Regardless of who wins, the Saints will complete a remarkable first regular season back in New Orleans after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina a year earlier. Other than the fact no major storms hit New Orleans this year, the surprising Saints seem to be the best thing to happen to this rebuilding city in 2006. Payton, often speaking about the need for his team to have an inspiring presence during the region’s recovery, doesn’t want to end the year on a sour note. “I told our team that it’s important we finish strong and we certainly have a lot of respect for Carolina,” he said.