The New Orleans Saints have clinched a playoff berth and control their own fate in the NFC South. If they beat the Buccaneers on Sunday in Tampa, they will win the division title.
New Orleans and Carolina, which visits Atlanta, are both 11-4, and the Saints would win a tiebreaker by virtue of having swept the season series with the Panthers.
So, if the Saints lose, they can still win the division if the Panthers lose.
Head coach Sean Payton said the playoffs essentially began last week when the Saints beat the Falcons, 23-13, to clinch their first playoff berth since 2013.
The Saints could be seeded anywhere from third to fifth depending on what happens Sunday, so there's still much at stake in the regular-season finale.
"The good thing about that is it keeps you sharp, you keep your edge, you are playing for something, it's significant," quarterback Drew Brees said Wednesday. "We want to continue to improve, we want to play our best football, especially as we head into the playoffs.
"The first order of business is to win the division before you can start thinking about anything else. We have that opportunity and we control that. I think that's the part that's exciting about this."
It seemed unlikely that New Orleans would be in this position after lopsided losses to Minnesota and New England to begin the season.
But the Saints followed that start with eight consecutive wins. The sixth win in that stretch was a 30-10 triumph over the Buccaneers on Nov. 5 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"Starting the season not so great and (now) turning it around the way we have has been big time," defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said. "Definitely a different mentality, definitely a different focus and I think guys are definitely embracing the run we are trying to make.
"I think at the end of the day when you win your division, especially in this league, it kind puts you exactly where you want to be right in the thick of things in the playoff race."
The Saints had little trouble with the Buccaneers in the first meeting, but Tampa Bay has been competitive in close losses within the division the last two weeks.
The Bucs lost at home to the Falcons (24-21) when a tying field goal missed on the final play, and in the last minute at Carolina (22-19) last Sunday.
New Orleans has won seven consecutive home games, but lost its last two on the road -- falling at Atlanta and the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints are 4-3 on the road, but a victory would guarantee that their first playoff game will be at home.
The Saints, who are seeking their first division title since 2011, are currently the fourth seed in the NFC and could become No. 3 if they win and the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams lose to San Francisco.
The Saints, Panthers and Rams games all kick off at 3:25 p.m.
52nd regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 32-19, including a 30-10 victory Nov. 5 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The winning percentage (.627) is New Orleans' highest against any opponent. The home team won both meetings last season. The Saints have a 14-9 edge in Tampa. The first meeting was in the Superdome and was memorable for the Buccaneers, who prevailed, 33-14, in 1977 for their first NFL victory after 26 consecutive losses.
The Saints re-signed defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who was signed during the summer and released during the Sept. 2 cutdown to 53 players. He took a roster spot that was vacated when defensive tackle John Hughes was placed on injured reserve. Hughes suffered a torn triceps last Sunday against Atlanta.
The Saints designated fullback John Kuhn to return from injured reserve, hoping that they extend their season long enough for him to return to game action. Kuhn, who suffered a biceps injury in early October, returned to practice on Wednesday. He's not eligible to be active for a game for two weeks, meaning New Orleans would have to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs before he could play in a game.
QB Drew Brees conducted business as usual Wednesday, the day after his grandfather, Ray Akins, died in Texas. Akins was 92. He was one of the winningest coaches in Texas high-school history and was a mentor to his grandson. Brees said he will return to Texas on Monday and Tuesday to be with family for his grandfather's services.
QB Taysom Hill continues to find ways onto the field even though he's behind Drew Brees and Chase Daniel under center. Hill has played on kickoff coverage and made three tackles in 56 snaps. Last Sunday, he played one snap at wide receiver against the Falcons and head coach Sean Payton said he will continue to look for ways to utilize Hill.
DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle), who has missed the last two games, did not participate in practice Wednesday.
T Terron Armstead (thigh), who was injured during last week's game, did not practice.
LB Hau-oli Kikahah (ankle) and WR Brandon Coleman (neck) did not practice.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion), who was inactive for last week's game, was limited.
TE Garrett Griffin (foot), who missed last week's game, was limited.
G Senio Kelemete (knee) TE Josh Hill (shoulder), WR Michael Thomas (hamstring) and T Ryan Ramczyk (thigh) were limited in practice.
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