The New Orleans Saints face a wide range of postseason possibilities. What they know for certain is that a win will extend their season at least another week.
The Saints, who retain a chance at winning the NFC South, will try to secure their fourth playoff berth in five seasons when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
New Orleans can punch its playoff ticket with a victory, but the Saints also get in win or lose if San Francisco beats Arizona. If they lose and the Cardinals win, the Saints will be clearing out their lockers for the offseason.
"We're approaching this like a playoff game," coach Sean 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 best-case scenario for the Saints would come with a victory combined with a loss by Carolina. That would hand New Orleans (10-5) the division title and a first-round bye. If the Saints and Panthers both win, New Orleans will settle for a wild-card spot.
Playing spoiler will require the Buccaneers (4-11) to hand the Saints their first home loss of the season and extend their losing streak to three games.
The Saints dropped back-to-back games for the first time in 2013 and failed to wrap up the South on Sunday with a 17-13 loss at Carolina. New Orleans was ahead 13-10 with less than a minute to go before Cam Newton orchestrated a winning drive to keep the division drama alive for another week.
"We had really good opportunities the last two weeks and we didn't take advantage of those," wide receiver Lance Moore said. "Now it's a win-or-go-home-type scenario for us."
New Orleans has turned the ball over a total of five times the last two weeks while taking it away only once.
Drew Brees has thrown four interceptions in that span after going the previous three games without one. He was sacked a season-high six times by the Panthers and has absorbed 10 in the last two games.
"Some of those (sacks) were on me, just (not) getting the ball out," said Brees, who needs 219 passing yards to eclipse 5,000 for a third straight season.
Offensively, New Orleans hasn't quite been itself lately, averaging 16.8 points over its last five games. Four of those contests, however, have come on the road. The Saints have averaged 32.9 points in their seven home games.
"We feel it is a big advantage for us, just like it is for a team when we play on the road," Payton said, also noting his team's late kickoff time. "I think that finishing up the regular season with a 3:25 start time is a big plus for us. It is up to us to take advantage of it."
New Orleans has won four straight meetings, including a 16-14 win at Tampa Bay on Sept. 15 - but that win came before the Bucs had settled on quarterback Mike Glennon.
Though they lost their first five games with the rookie under center, the Bucs won four of the next five. Tampa Bay, however, has now dropped consecutive games and is out to avoid ending the season on a three-game skid.
Scoring points has been a bit of a chore lately for the Bucs, who've averaged 15.0 points over their last four games, while Glennon hasn't been nearly as impressive as he was during a three-game win streak that began Nov. 11.
He has averaged 151.8 passing yards over the last four games - three of them losses, including Sunday's 23-13 defeat at St. Louis. After the Rams sacked him seven times, Glennon is focused on avoiding those situations against the Saints.
"I think a big part of the game is to keep that offense off the field," Glennon said. "We want to control the ball as long as we can because that's such a powerful offense and they're one of the best offenses in the league."
The Bucs' best players will be on the field, according to coach Greg Schiano, despite a win not meaning quite the same thing it will for the Saints.
"You're 4-11, well, you know what, that last game sticks with you," Schiano said. "You have to live with that taste the entire offseason. Our guys need to play. If you're healthy enough to play, you should play. That's what we do."
The Saints will be without one of their top defensive backs after Kenny Vaccaro had surgery Tuesday on a broken left ankle. New Orleans signed safety Terrence Frederick off of Cleveland's practice squad Wednesday.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved