Saints facing crunch time Sunday vs. Bucs

By Brett Martel

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — With the Saints still trying to lock up a playoff spot, coach Sean Payton’s theme for this week deals with focusing on what his team can control and tuning out all the uncertainties.

Payton even made the unusual move of quickly ending speculation about safety Kenny Vaccaro’s availability for Sunday’s regular season finale against Tampa Bay, announcing on Monday that the rookie defensive back has a fractured left ankle and is scheduled for surgery on Tuesday.

“We’re approaching this like a playoff game,” Payton said. “The key for us is to handle the holiday week, with Christmas being on a Wednesday, put together a good plan and a good set of practices and put our focus into playing our best football Sunday.”

The coach also confirmed that rookie Terron Armstead would get his second-career start at left tackle, despite being beaten on three sacks and committing two false start penalties in a 17-13 loss at Carolina on Sunday.

“Certainly there are growing pains, but there are a lot of things that he did very well,” Payton said of Armstead, who replaced Charles Brown following the veteran’s benching at St. Louis in Week 15. “Going through the tape now twice, I was extremely encouraged by the way he played.”

The Saints, who host the Buccaneers at 4:25 p.m. EST Sunday, know they’ll be in the playoffs if they win. What they don’t know is how high their seeding will be. They could win the division and snatch the No. 2 seed in the NFC — meaning a coveted first-round bye and second-round home game — if they beat the Bucs and if Carolina also loses at Atlanta in a 1 p.m. Sunday game.

The Saints could even lose and still make the playoffs, so long as Arizona also losses at home against San Francisco.

“The challenge this week is trying guard against” thinking about those various scenarios, Payton said. “We control one thing. We know if we’re able to go out and play well and win, we’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. … I don’t want to spend those two hours prior to the game with the television sets going and all the other potential distractions that can take place with a game that’s being played prior to ours.”

New Orleans initially was scheduled to play at the same time as Carolina, but kickoff was moved back to avoid the possibility of the Cardinals being eliminated before their kickoff.

Meanwhile, Payton said he plans to start meetings and practice a couple hours later than usual on Wednesday, allowing players to spend Christmas morning with whatever family they may have in town.

And right now, it seems, the Saints could use support from family, as well as fans. Their loss at Carolina prevented them from clinching their division and a No. 2 seed, and left them still in danger of missing the postseason altogether. It was also their third loss in four games and marked the first time they’ve lost two straight.

“We had really good opportunities the last two weeks and we didn’t take advantage of those,” receiver Lance Moore said. “Now it’s a win-or-go-home-type scenario for us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees, meanwhile, posted a note on social media reading: “Hey Who Dat Nation. Our team appreciates you so much, especially during times like these. Our best is yet to come. Believe That! Who Dat!”

Payton described the Saints as upbeat during meetings on Monday, when they were able to see how much they did right in nearly beating the playoff-bound Panthers on the road.

Asked whether his team’s confidence could be shaken by its recent slide, Payton said, “I don’t sense that at all. Obviously all of us hurt from that loss — it stung — but I think they felt pretty good about the preparation and the plan going in and they did a great job of executing it.”

Since starting 5-0, New Orleans has been essentially mired in mediocrity, going 5-5, but safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Saints still view themselves as a squad with a lot of upside.

“If you watch us on tape, we’re a good team. We have a great offense. The defense is playing top five. The special teams are clicking,” Jenkins said. “We know once we get in the tournament, we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with. But to get there we have to get this win this week. So I think all the focus goes there.”

 

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