Payton narrowing Saints’ focus for finale vs. Bucs

With the Saints still trying to lock up a playoff spot, coach

Sean Payton’s theme for this week deals with focusing on what his

team can control and tuning out all the uncertainties.

Payton even made the unusual move of quickly ending speculation

about safety Kenny Vaccaro’s availability for Sunday’s regular

season finale against Tampa Bay, announcing on Monday that the

rookie defensive back has a fractured left ankle and is scheduled

for surgery on Tuesday.

”We’re approaching this like a playoff game,” Payton said.

”The key for us is to handle the holiday week, with Christmas

being on a Wednesday, put together a good plan and a good set of

practices and put our focus into playing our best football

Sunday.”

The coach also confirmed that rookie Terron Armstead would get

his second-career start at left tackle, despite being beaten on

three sacks and committing two false start penalties in a 17-13

loss at Carolina on Sunday.

”Certainly there are growing pains, but there are a lot of

things that he did very well,” Payton said of Armstead, who

replaced Charles Brown following the veteran’s benching at St.

Louis in Week 15. ”Going through the tape now twice, I was

extremely encouraged by the way he played.”

The Saints, who host the Buccaneers at 4:25 p.m. EST Sunday,

know they’ll be in the playoffs if they win. What they don’t know

is how high their seeding will be. They could win the division and

snatch the No. 2 seed in the NFC – meaning a coveted first-round

bye and second-round home game – if they beat the Bucs and if

Carolina also loses at Atlanta in a 1 p.m. Sunday game.

The Saints could even lose and still make the playoffs, so long

as Arizona also losses at home against San Francisco.

”The challenge this week is trying guard against” thinking

about those various scenarios, Payton said. ”We control one thing.

We know if we’re able to go out and play well and win, we’re

guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. … I don’t want to spend those

two hours prior to the game with the television sets going and all

the other potential distractions that can take place with a game

that’s being played prior to ours.”

New Orleans initially was scheduled to play at the same time as

Carolina, but kickoff was moved back to avoid the possibility of

the Cardinals being eliminated before their kickoff.

Meanwhile, Payton said he plans to start meetings and practice a

couple hours later than usual on Wednesday, allowing players to

spend Christmas morning with whatever family they may have in

town.

And right now, it seems, the Saints could use support from

family, as well as fans. Their loss at Carolina prevented them from

clinching their division and a No. 2 seed, and left them still in

danger of missing the postseason altogether. It was also their

third loss in four games and marked the first time they’ve lost two

straight.

”We had really good opportunities the last two weeks and we

didn’t take advantage of those,” receiver Lance Moore said. ”Now

it’s a win-or-go-home-type scenario for us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees, meanwhile, posted a note on social media

reading: ”Hey Who Dat Nation. Our team appreciates you so much,

especially during times like these. Our best is yet to come.

Believe That! Who Dat!”

Payton described the Saints as upbeat during meetings on Monday,

when they were able to see how much they did right in nearly

beating the playoff-bound Panthers on the road.

Asked whether his team’s confidence could be shaken by its

recent slide, Payton said, ”I don’t sense that at all. Obviously

all of us hurt from that loss – it stung – but I think they felt

pretty good about the preparation and the plan going in and they

did a great job of executing it.”

Since starting 5-0, New Orleans has been essentially mired in

mediocrity, going 5-5, but safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Saints

still view themselves as a squad with a lot of upside.

”If you watch us on tape, we’re a good team. We have a great

offense. The defense is playing top five. The special teams are

clicking,” Jenkins said. ”We know once we get in the tournament,

we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with. But to get there we

have to get this win this week. So I think all the focus goes

there.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org