With the end of the regular season now clearly in sight, the Saints are starting to hit their stride with five consecutive wins and a playoff berth already tucked away.
The only thing they have at this point, however, is a wild-card spot – nothing more, nothing less. Which is why they have to keep the pedal to the metal for the next three weeks.
To get where they want to go in January, and perhaps February, the Saints (10-3) know the three-game stretch that begins with the Minnesota Vikings (2-11) in Mall of America Field on Sunday is key.
With a two-game lead on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, the division title and a playoff game at home is the next priority for the Saints. After that, the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which would go to the San Francisco 49ers (10-3) if they were to finish with the same record, is at least still on the table.
"That's what we're playing for, that No. 2 seed," Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We have to take one game at a time and continue to get better and handle business. But it's starting to shake out how we want it to."
The Saints have plugged away since an unexpected loss to the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 30 with an offense that leads the league in total yards and passing yards and a defense that has come up with big plays, if not big turnovers, when it needs them.
But with games against the Vikings, Falcons (Dec. 26) and Carolina Panthers (Jan. 1) coming up, the Saints know they can't afford to slip up even once if they want to earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
"We have high goals and high aspirations, and certainly, that's one of them," coach Sean Payton said of clinching a playoff spot. "With three games left though, there's still a lot at stake in regards to positioning yourself for the playoffs.
"I think that's where the focus has been. We always start with making the playoffs and winning your division, then putting yourself in the best position to play well in the playoffs."
With that said, Payton admitted that the time to do some scoreboard-watching is here although he said that doesn't happen until after his game.
"Typically, if you asked, it would be plane-ride discussion on the way home," Payton said. "I think our whole league would be focused as to what happened 'today.' There are always a couple games that are more important.
"I could tell you we don't pay any attention to it, and that wouldn't be true," he said. "But it doesn't really begin to take place until December. By the time Wednesday comes around though, we refocus as to what's most important and that is how we play."
Saints motivated by playoff positioning
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