Payton not divulging plan for Brees in finale

A day after Sean Payton helped Drew Brees break the NFL’s

single-season passing record the coach wouldn’t divulge whether

he’d enable his star quarterback to maintain that distinction.

With 5,087 yards passing this season after Monday night’s

victory over Atlanta, Brees enters the final week of the season 190

yards ahead of New England’s Tom Brady. Yet the Saints’

regular-season finale may not matter in terms of playoff seeding,

meaning the prudent choice for Payton could be to rest Brees for

much of Sunday’s game against Carolina.

The Patriots, by contrast, need to beat Buffalo to ensure

they’ll have the top seed in the AFC, and Brady has proven time and

again he can put up a lot of yards in a single game. He had a

season-high 517 yards against Miami in Week 1 and threw for 423

against San Diego. The last time New England played Buffalo, Brady

threw for 387 yards.

So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Brady could

finish the season with the passing record Brees now holds,

particularly if the Saints’ quarterback sits out.

”I’m not really aware of the space between the two. I am

probably better off not knowing,” Payton said Tuesday of Brees and

Brady’s yardage totals.

With the playoffs close, Payton said the Saints’ priority must

be how to ”put ourselves in the best position to play well and put

ourselves in an opportunity to win a championship.”

”That’s not always what is popular,” the coach added.

Payton pointed out that he heard criticism of his decision

during the 2009 season to rest Brees and other key starters in the

regular-season finale against Carolina. The Saints lost that game,

finishing a season that had started 13-0 on a three-game skid. No

team had ever gone into the playoffs on a losing streak that long

and won the Super Bowl, but Payton relished the chance to defy

history – and did.

”It was what we needed to do as a team,” Payton recalled of

his 2009 decision. ”You make decisions. They are not always right.

You try to make them with the right things to help your team.

”Last night was one of those situations,” Payton added,

referring to his decision to let Brees throw late in Monday night’s

game. ”This upcoming game will be one of those situations.”

Payton has his reasons for being cautious, though. They include

bad and relatively fresh memories from the 2010 regular season

finale, when then-leading rusher Chris Ivory, emerging tight end

Jimmy Graham and starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins all got

hurt.

The worst part was that the Saints could not have gained

anything in terms of seeding by winning that game because Atlanta

also won that day to wrap up the NFC South Division title. The next

week, the Saints were bounced from the postseason by Seattle.

”We just have to be smart,” Payton said. ”We are playing

well, with some momentum. Each year is different. We will look at

that closely.”

Now that New Orleans has clinched the division, this weekend’s

scenario is similar to last season in that the only way the Saints

can improve their seeding is with both a win over the Panthers and

a San Francisco loss at St. Louis, which is 2-13. If that happened,

the Saints would jump to No. 2 and get a first-round bye and a

second-round game at home. That, however, does not appear likely to

odds makers, who’ve made the 49ers 10 1/2-point favorites.

Payton already has made one arguably unconventional move to help

Brees set the record. He let his star quarterback keep throwing

during the final minutes of Monday night’s 45-16 victory over the

Falcons to get the 30 yards he needed to surpass Dan Marino’s 1984

record of 5,084 yards. The last pass was an otherwise

inconsequential 9-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles.

While Payton exposed himself to criticism for running up the

score, he said he was comfortable with his decision.

”You go with your gut,” Payton said. ”I thought it was the

right decisions last night. This morning, I thought it was clearly

the right decision. I felt overwhelmingly that most people that are

involved in this game, and know a little bit about this game,

probably felt the same way. The great thing about our game is that

you can have an opinion about it.”

When Brees came off the field after eclipsing Marino’s mark on

his last pass of the game, he carried the ball he threw on the

history-making completion to Sproles.

Brees then said he wished there was a way to share the ball with

his teammates, upon whom he showered credit for helping him

succeed.

”I guess we could cut it up and give it to them all,” Brees

said. ”I guess the ball itself is not as important to me as the

memory we created, because that is something that will live

forever.”

The record itself, however, could be gone sooner than later –

unless Payton decides it’s something worth fighting for come

Sunday.