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Sean Payton rewards surging Saints with some rest

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

Sean Payton doesn't worry about interrupting the momentum New Orleans has gathered lately.

The coach figures if the Saints are playing well now, they should only get better after a week away from football.

''I'm going to get them out of here,'' Payton said Monday. ''Our guys will understand how to handle this time and understand the significance of mentally and physically getting away from it for a while and then getting ready for the second stretch.''

The Saints (6-3) have played some of their best football during the past month. Following a 34-3 demolition of Carolina on Sunday, they'll now get a chance to recharge for a stretch run that could very well vault them back to the top of the NFC.

''We're just now putting a couple of wins together,'' Payton said. ''The good news is that we're within striking distance and we've hung in there despite not playing some good football early on.''

The defending champions didn't quite live up to their high-scoring standards early this season. Their first three wins were narrow escapes over struggling teams, giving them a combined victory margin of 10 points over teams that currently have losing records: Minnesota (3-5), San Francisco (2-6) and Carolina (1-7).

By contrast, their last three victories over Tampa Bay (5-3), Pittsburgh (6-2) and Carolina have come by a combined 66 points.

New Orleans' only loss in its last four games came against Cleveland, which seemed puzzling at the time, but less so after the resurgent Browns pummeled New England 34-14 on Sunday.

For the Saints, the bottom line is that through nine games, they are only a half-game behind the New York Giants (6-2) and the Atlanta Falcons (6-2) for the overall lead in the NFC.

Payton doesn't want the Saints to get ahead of themselves after stringing back-to-back wins together for the first time since Week 2. To illustrate why, the coach referenced the surprising 6-0 start by the NBA's New Orleans Hornets.

''The Hornets are on a roll with momentum. We've won two games in a row. There's a difference,'' Payton said before alluding to the Saints' 13-game winning streak to open 2009. ''We hope to stack some games back to back to back and we know what that feels like. ... Generally, when you have some type of success in a football season, you put together a stretch of wins, so that's what we're trying to do.''

Payton decided his approach during the bye week would be to minimize the workload. Players had Monday off, were scheduled to be in Tuesday for conditioning and video review, and then would get the rest of the week off.

The bye also may allow New Orleans to get back several players who were injured at Carolina without them having to miss a game.

Payton said safety Darren Sharper had a ''slight'' left hamstring injury, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins has a pinched nerve in his right shoulder and Chris Ivory has a separated left shoulder. The coach seemed confident all three would be able to practice next week, along with running back Reggie Bush, who has missed seven games since breaking a bone in his lower right leg in Week 2.

Payton was unsure how much time tight end Jeremy Shockey would need before his bruised ribs could withstand full contact. Shockey was hurt while scoring a touchdown on his 500th career catch Sunday.

Payton also was unsure whether running back Pierre Thomas, who has missed six games since spraining his left ankle, would be able to practice next week.

''Pierre is making progress and just kind of getting over the hump,'' Payton said. ''I was encouraged today with how he was feeling.''

Meanwhile, starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer both were pleased with their returns on Sunday after Porter (left knee) missed four games and Greer (left shoulder) missed two. Greer returned an interception for a touchdown, and both players helped New Orleans' defense extend its string of holding teams under 300 yards to six games.

Even after shuffling players around for weeks because of injuries, New Orleans ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed and first against the pass going into Monday night's action.

''We ended the first half of the season on a high note,'' Porter said. ''We have to relax, take care of our bodies during this bye week, get guys healthy and come back for the second half of the season ready to roll.''

Tagged: Saints, Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter

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