Saints coach Payton cites players' health as top concern

METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton doesn’t like the idea of the New Orleans Saints finishing their best regular season in franchise history on a three-game losing streak.

He isn’t pleased with some of the statistical trends that have coincided with the Saints’ last four games, which included two slim victories over non-playoff teams, followed by two losses at home.

The coach would like to beat Carolina on Sunday and restore some momentum going into the playoffs. He’d like to shake the rust of regulars like cornerback Jabari Greer, who’s missed seven games with a sports hernia, or tight end Jeremy Shockey, who has missed the last two games.

Yet Payton’s not sure any of that will matter once the playoffs start. What always matters is who’s able to play.

“The one thing we do know is a factor is injuries,” Payton said. “We know that that is something that you have to be mindful of.”

The Saints have locked up the NFC’s top seed and a first-round bye. But the questions already being raised about their championship credentials after two losses will only multiply if a team that started 13-0 finishes at 13-3.

The defeats have given Payton and his staff problems to work on. But that doesn’t mean the New Orleans starters can expect a full day’s work. While New Orleans’ late slide might cause the outcome to get more media attention than a typical meaningless season finale, the Saints will be more focused on getting ready to play two weeks later.

“You want to show improvement and you want to clean up and correct,” Payton said. “There are pros and cons in regards to making sure that the guys are healthy and ready for the divisional (playoff) game.”

Payton said he’ll draw on experience from 2006, when the Saints were locked into the second seed in the NFC and pulled their starters early in their final regular season game, which also was against the Panthers. New Orleans went on to lose 31-21, but beat Philadelphia in a home playoff game two weeks later.

“I thought we handled that pretty well,” Payton said after practice on Thursday.

The Saints’ expect to have Greer, their best cornerback, back on the field after he returned to practice last week. With Greer in the lineup during the first half of the season, the Saints were 16th in the NFL in yards passing allowed. Since Greer’s departure, New Orleans has fallen nine spots to 25th, having given up more than 300 yards passing in three of its last four games.

“It’s important to get back out there,” Greer said. “It’s important to get my timing back. It’s important to get that work with my safeties and the guys. It’s important to get in there and tackle. I haven’t tackled in eight weeks.”

Payton agreed.

“In Jabari’s case, because of the time that he’s been out, I think it will be important work,” he said.

The Saints also have had trouble stopping the run lately, having allowed 321 yards rushing in their last two games.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said rest could be more of a factor in fixing that than anything.

“As I look at our team right now, the freshness is important,” Williams said. “I do see the cumulative body blows, running blows, fatigue blows — you see that. … That’s the best thing we can get back is get these guys fresh legs.”

Then there’s the question of how much to play Drew Brees, who will finish the season with an NFL-record completion percentage of 70.6 if he sits out on Sunday.

Yet, the Saints’ offense has slowed lately in line with recent struggles to convert on third down. The Saints converted only one of seven third downs in a 24-17 loss to Dallas and six of 11 in their loss last Sunday to Tampa Bay, coming up a yard short three times.

As a rookie, Brees looked up all the NFL records for quarterbacks because he “just wanted to know.” He knew from memory that the current record is 70.55 percent, set by Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson in 1982.

Brees wears No. 9 in honor of Ted Williams, who could have ensured he’d hit .400 in 1941 by sitting out the last game of that season, but instead decided to play and wound up hitting .406

“That’s my guy, so I know the story,” Brees said when the Red Sox legend’s name came up. “I’m going to do whatever I am asked to do and whatever I can to help this team.”

Brett Martel/The Associated Press