(AP) Saints coach Sean Payton bristled on Monday when pressed about whether he intended to protect certain starters from potential injury by sitting them out of New Orleans' anti-climactic regular season finale.
''We're going to prepare to play Carolina and continue to work on getting better in the areas we need to,'' Payton asserted. ''I can't be any more clear; we'll approach it just like we would any regular season game.''
But this isn't any regular season game. It holds no playoff implications for the Saints (13-2), who wrapped up the top overall seed in the NFC with a 31-28 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Sure, a victory would give the Saints the first 14-win regular season in the history of a franchise that was founded in 1967.
But that may not be worth the risk of exposing a central player such as quarterback Drew Brees - who turns 40 next month - to a full-force hit that might affect his health in the all-important postseason. And Carolina defenders - eager to improve their own career prospects by putting more great hits on video - will surely be taking aim at top offensive producers like receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara.
And there are probably benefits to getting more snaps for reserves this week in the event they are pressed into service in the playoffs.
''We're going to treat this like a regular work week,'' starting safety Vonn Bell said, sidestepping a question about the merits of resting key players this week. ''We're going to do what the coaches tell us.''
The rest vs. rust dilemma is one that coaches are generally thankful to encounter.
The last time the Saints were a No. 1 seed was in 2009, when Payton sat Brees for the regular season finale in Carolina. New Orleans lost that game before becoming the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl after ending the regular season on a three-game skid.
But Payton downplayed his past decision-making on that front.
''I don't have a general philosophy,'' Payton said. ''Each team's different.''
Saints players who are banged up could now have two weekends off if they don't play against Carolina. New Orleans gets a bye after that before opening their playoff run at home in the divisional round against an opponent yet to be determined.
Recent results suggest the Saints could use the rest.
After a string of dominant victories during the heart of the season, New Orleans' past four games have included one close loss and three straight fourth-quarter comebacks.
Whether the tighter games were indicative of the Saints coming back to the pack is a matter for debate. Payton and the Saints sound generally gratified by the way they've handled their recent string of late-game stress.
''The thing I'm encouraged about - each of those times we're challenged, we found a way to come up on the right end for the most part,'' Payton said, noting that in the NFL, close games are ''more the norm'' than the multi-touchdown victories the Saints enjoyed against the New York Giants, Washington, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and in their home date with Atlanta.
''We're a resilient team,'' Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk said. ''Not every NFL game is a blowout. Even if you have a dominant offense, it doesn't happen a lot. We know that's not a common occurrence and later in the year we got to battle through some games and I think that shows you what kind of team we have.''
Ramczyk looked to be among the players who could use a break when he briefly left the game against Pittsburgh with an ankle injury. But he returned to play through it and said he felt relatively good on Monday. It remains to be seen how left tackle Terron Armstead fares. His action against Pittsburgh was his first since his chest injury on Nov. 11 at Cincinnati. He did not make it through the whole game and the Saints have not provided updates on his condition.
Beyond that, the Saints appear relatively healthy, particularly after receiver Ted Ginn Jr.'s impactful return (five catches, 74 yards) against Pittsburgh from a knee injury that kept him on injured reserve more than half the season.
''He played well,'' Payton said. ''It was good to have him back out there.''
If Payton wants Ginn back out there again in the postseason, he could always limit his snap count against the Panthers.
As far as the most successful coach in Saints history is concerned, such decisions will become evident in due time.
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