METAIRIE, La. (AP) Sean Payton wants to leave as little doubt as possible about the Saints' prospects for success in 2016.
Avoiding double-digits in the loss column certainly wouldn't hurt.
''Perception is important and I think how you finish the season is important,'' Payton said Monday. ''You work so long and to put the hours in – the players and coaches and everyone involved do. The taste in your mouth if you don't have success is terrible.''
When the Saints (6-9) close out an otherwise disappointing, non-playoff season in Atlanta on Sunday, they'll have a chance to consolidate recent gains and improve the perception of the progress being made in New Orleans.
A win would send New Orleans into the offseason with three victories in four games. The Saints would also avoid what would otherwise be the first season with as many as 10 losses since 2005 – the year before Payton and record-setting quarterback Drew Brees arrived.
''The difference between 7-9 or 6-10 is a big deal,'' Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. ''It is a double-digit loss (season) instead of a single-digit. I just think that it looks worse.
''We may not be going to the playoffs, but you're putting your resume on tape,'' Vaccaro added.
Payton was clearly gratified by the energy and effort on display in the Superdome during a 38-27 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday, even though New Orleans had been eliminated from the playoffs since the previous week. The coach called the performance ''inspirational,'' adding that, ''If you just were watching the game, you wouldn't know if it was Week 3 or Week 15.''
The offensive line protected Drew Brees well enough to enable the star quarterback to pass for 412 yards and three touchdowns with his mobility limited by a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
Second-year receivers Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead continued to thrive. Cooks has eclipsed 1,000 yards this season, while Snead needs only 51 yards to hit that mark. Even newly reacquired running back Travaris Cadet had a 44-yard TD reception.
Two of the most inspirational players on the roster, cornerback Delvin Breaux and running back Tim Hightower, each had big games.
Breaux had an interception and his deflection caused another – the latest highlights for a 26-year-old, first-year NFL player who was prevented from playing at LSU by a broken neck in high school.
The 29-year-old Hightower, who missed the previous three seasons because of a knee injury and related complications, rushed for 122 yards and two TDs to go with 47 yards receiving, bolstering his chances of prolonging his comeback into 2016 and beyond.
''All I know is that I've given it my best these last several weeks and plan to do so this final week, if that's good enough to earn me an opportunity next year,'' Hightower said.
It was a moral victory when Hightower, who spent the preseason with New Orleans, was kept through final cuts. But he was released the day before the regular-season opener and not brought back until Khiry Robinson's broken leg in midseason. He's been a pivotal player in each of New Orleans' last two victories.
''I have no hard feelings,'' Hightower said. ''I'm just thankful that things worked out where I was able to come back.''
In a week's time, the Saints will be done with 2015 and starting the evaluations of which players they want back and which ones they want to attract. Regardless of whether they win or lose Sunday, Payton said no one should be questioning the ownership's stability and desire to win; the competence of the management; or his own desire to keep coaching in New Orleans long past this season – even if he hasn't exactly ruled out entertaining other opportunities that may come up.
''I don't think there is any gray area about where we are going as a franchise,'' Payton said. ''We've had great stability with ownership and leadership here from the top down, and I think it's been a plus for us, not a detriment.''
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