Saints not resting on records as postseason begins

If Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints are inclined to reflect back

on anything from 2011, it’s not so much their recently concluded

record-breaking regular season as their disappointing first-round

playoff loss to Seattle last January.

”You understand in our game that when you line up in the

postseason, there’s a finality to it,” Payton said Monday as the

Saints began preparations for their playoff opener against

Detroit.

”There’s a lot of things that were positive and a lot of things

that were accomplished with the season we just had, and yet the

reason you try to win as many games as you can is to prepare

yourself for what we’re getting ready to accomplish now,” Payton

continued. ”I don’t think you reflect now. You are still driven by

the challenge ahead.”

The 2011 Saints might be better than the 2009 team that won the

Super Bowl. Both were 13-3 in the regular season, and this season’s

squad set several NFL and franchise records, mostly on offense.

The Saints 7,474 offensive yards set a new league mark by 399

yards. Drew Brees’ 5,476 yards passing was the most for any

quarterback by more than 200 yards, while his 468 completions and

71.2 completion rate also set new league highs. Darren Sproles’

2,696 combined yards rushing, receiving and on returns also

established a new NFL single-season best.

Those records were only a sampling of the history New Orleans

made this season, though all that will mean a lot less if they

suffer an early exit from the playoffs.

Last season, the Saints won 11 games and were expected to roll

past a Seahawks squad that was the first division winner in NFL

history with a losing record. The Seahawks wound up celebrating an

upset, and the Saints like to think now that they learned from

it.

”It helps that you’ve been through it and experienced a tough

loss in a game you were expected to win in a crucial time,” safety

Roman Harper said. ”If you don’t show up and play with a sense of

urgency and discipline, a team can beat you. … If you don’t come

prepared with a sense of urgency, you will get your tail kicked in

this league.”

The Saints have been building momentum for two months now,

winning eight straight games, including six by double digits.

They’ve outscored their last three opponents 132-53 combined. Two

of those victories came against division foes who had been playing

well lately in Atlanta and Carolina.

On Sunday against the Panthers, the Saints could have begun

resting starters early in the second half, when their chances of

improving their No. 3 seeding diminished as second-seed San

Francisco pulled away from St. Louis. Instead, the Saints chose an

aggressive approach that turned a one-score halftime lead into a

45-17 blowout.

In the process, they solidified their credentials as a playoff

favorite, even if they didn’t get a top-two seeding in the NFC and

will have to win three postseason games to get back to the Super

Bowl.

”Sean’s been saying for a couple of weeks now that if we just

continue to play like we’re playing and continue in the path we’re

on, that a lot of teams are not going to want to face us,” Harper

said. ”You can say that now, but then if we go out and lose a

game, it doesn’t really mean anything.”

Saints right tackle Zach Strief also was guarded about the

significance of the Saints’ recent sting of lopsided wins.

”This is a game that can turn quickly on you,” Strief said.

”Us playing well the last few weeks doesn’t give us anything but

confidence going in. It doesn’t give us a win.”

Payton said he was happy to see his players being recognized

both for individual and team records. For now, though, his message

to his players is that they need to maintain the team chemistry

that helped them win big lately and forget about the accolades

already accrued – at least until the postseason ends.

”It’s such a team sport,” Payton said. ”It seems like the

last two weeks there’s been a lot of talk about individual

accomplishments, as there should be with the passing record, Darren

Sproles. … (But) this is the time of year when the focus really

shifts to us playing our best football as a team.”