Saints Head Coach Sean Payton will roll the dice Sunday and play his starting roster against the hot Carolina Panthers who have won four of their last five games including last week’s blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-16.

Payton says he’ll not only play his starters but play to win with the 2nd Seed in the NFC still up for grabs (theoretically at least.)

"We're going to play all of our guys. There's still seeding at stake. I know it's similar to a year ago. I think we're getting better as a team week to week right now, and there's a value in that...That progress might be something we need going into this post-season."

Sound familiar?  Last season, the Saints played their starters Week 17 in hopes the NFC South Title could still come their way if they beat Tampa Bay and Carolina miraculously upset the Atlanta Failcons.  Instead, they got disaster.  Not only did the Saints lose and Atlanta win--three key players (starting FS Malcolm Jenkins, rising talent TE Jimmy Graham and then-leading rusher RB Chris Ivory) went down with injuries in the first 16 minutes of the game. Without three of their best playmakers, the Saints ended their reign as Super Bowl Champions in an embarrassing defeat to the only 7-9 team to win their Division, the NFC West’s Seattle Seahawks.

Months later, Payton admitted the decision to play his starters still haunted him and said he’d do things differently in hindsight.  "We thought, hey, it would be easy enough to get in there (in the Bucs game), pay attention (to the Falcons-Panthers score) and then very quickly if we felt it went a certain direction, we could begin to rest our guys," Payton said. "That didn't happen quick enough. A lot of these injuries happened early. But still, though, looking back at it, that's something we think about, something I think about."

So why on earth is Sean Payton exposing his starters to injury risk one week before the Playoffs again?

Big Mo. Earlier this week, Payton said his prime motivation is to keep the Saints’ momentum going into the post-season.  The Saints are on a seven-game winning streak topped off by a 45-16 demolition of the Atlanta Failcons on MNF and Drew Brees’ breaking Dan Marino’s 1984 Record for Most Passing Yards in a Season.  Both he and Drew Brees blamed last year’s Week 17 loss to Tampa 23-13 on half-hearted effort from players who were waiting to be pulled from the game.

NFC #2 Seed. Who doesn’t want to a Bye Week instead of battling next week in the Wild Card Round? Apparently, the Saints want it so badly they’re willing to risk injuries in the face of slim odds they’ll get the coveted #2 Seed.  The only way the Saints can take the 2nd Seed away from the 49ers is with a Saints win and a 49ers loss on Sunday.  Both the 49ers and Saints are 12-3, but the 49ers have the edge on the Conference Record tie-breaker, 9-2 vs. 8-3.  The St. Louis Rams don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers. All the 2-13 Rams want to do is to get it over with and forget their miserable season.

Records, Records & More Records.  Coach Payton says records aren’t important, but the Saints’ 4th Quarter Passing against an already beatdown Failcons to push Drew Brees over Dan Marino’s mark proves otherwise.  After decades as NFL bottom-feeders, the Saints are reveling in the prestige of their record-breaking 2011 campaign. The Saints are within striking distance of two NFL records set by the “Greatest Show on Turf” in ‘00.  They need 219 yards to break the Rams’ record for Most Total Offense Yards Gained in a Season (7,075) and 295 yards to beat their Most Passing Yards Gained in a Season (5,232.) The Saints are within spitting distance of four more NFL Team Records.  With 16 more First Downs the Saints eclipse K.C.’s ’04 record for Most First Downs in a Season (398.)  Three more Passing First Downs bests San Diego’s single-season record (259) set in 1985.  Nine more Completions tops Indianapolis ’10 record (450.)  With one game to go, the Saints hope to hang on to their new Team Completion % in a Season record (70.67%) after dropping Cincinnati’s ’82 record of 70.67%. A Saints’ Win on Sunday also ties a franchise record for Most Wins in a Season (13-3 in ’87 and ’09) and becomes the first season the Saints went undefeated at Home.

Drew Brees looks to add to his mountain of records Sunday.  His streak of 42 Games with 1+ TDs which began October 18, 2009 is second to Johnny Unitas (47.)  With a Comp. % of 70.739, Brees is on track to break his own ’09 record for Highest completion percentage in a Season (70.623.)  He is 11 shy of surpassing Peyton Manning’s ’10 record for Most Completions in a Season (450.) With one more Consecutive Game of 300+ Passing Yards, he’ll be solo owner of a record (6) he now shares with Steve Young (’98), Kurt Warner (’00) and Rich Gannon (’02.)

Four more Saints have major NFL individual records within their reach as well: TE Jimmy Graham, RB Darren Sproles, SS Roman Harper, and P Thomas Morstead.  Jimmy Graham needs 78 yards to pass up another #80, San Diego Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, for the Most Receiving Yards by a TE in a Season (1,290 in ’80.)  Graham will battle it out with New England’s Rob Gronkowski who has six more yards than him.  Strong Safety Roman Harper avenged being smoked by Marshawn Lynch in last year’s Seattle debacle by having his best season ever, and is one sack away from setting a new record for Most Sacks by a Safety in a Season set by Adrian Wilson in Arizona in ’05 (7.5.) Punter Thomas Morstead already set a new NFL record for the Most Touchbacks in a Season last Monday (62.)  Now he’s on the verge of beating Oakland’s ’09 record for Highest Net Punting Avg. in a Season of 43.835 yards (Morstead’s is 43.1.) Then there’s #43 Darren Sproles who is 163 yards from breaking the NFL record for All-Purpose Yards in a Season set in 2,000 by Tennessee’s Derrick Mason (2,690.)  Despite his success his first year as a Saint, Sproles wasn’t picked for the Pro Bowl roster.  Only Graham was picked as a Starter; Harper and Morstead are Alternates. 

False Security of “Depth.”  The Saints have arguably the most depth of any NFL team at key skill positions.  Their Offensive backfield is so deep their #1 Rusher from last season, Chris Ivory, has been inactive most of the season.  Any player on our Rushing and Receiving Corps would be featured on another NFL team who didn’t ascribe to Coach Payton’s “Run by Committee” philosophy. Unlike ’09 when we were signing former Saints players off the street to fill-in for injured Defensive Backs, the Saints are loaded and relatively healthy at the position this year.  The Saints Offense and Defense operate on constant substitutions between plays that give migraines to opponents’ O.C.’s and D.C.’s.  While depth may give the Saints the “luxury” of replacing an injured player with another off-the-shelf that’s ready to go, it diminishes the competitive edge the revolving door of
players gives the Saints over opponents.

As last year’s Week 17 loss of Graham, Jenkins and Ivory proved, depth can be erased in a matter of minutes.  The Saints will go on the field without three players due to injury: WR Lance Moore (left hamstring), RB Mark Ingram (right toe) and TE John Gilmore (right toe).  Moore aggravated a previous injury from practice during the Saints’ MNF win.  Ingram’s been out for three games, and suffered what Coach Payton described as a “setback” during practice this week.

Week 17 injuries to key players stubborn coaches have played in meaningless games aren’t uncommon in NFL history, but they’re always costly.  In Week 17 of ’09, the Patriots lost one of their key weapons, TE Wes Welker (soon-to-be owner of the ’11 Receiving Title), only to be bounced out their first round by the Baltimore Ravens.  During the ’05 season, the San Diego Chargers were already eliminated from Playoff contention but kept their franchise-tagged QB in their final game against the Broncos, winner of the AFCW.  In the 4th Quarter, Drew Brees suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder of his throwing arm that almost ended his career. 

Injury isn’t the only risk the Saints face.  A loss to the Panthers would kill the “Big Mo” Coach Payton is trying to build on heading into the Playoffs.  The 6-9 Panthers have won four of their last five.  They’re seeking a defining victory over a hated Divisional Rival as they head into the Off Season.  The Panthers have nothing left to play for but pride and they have an arsenal of weapons at their disposal.

Even Panthers’ Head Coach Ron Rivera wonders what Payton’s thinking.  “They've got a chance to do all those things, but he's got to look at what happened last year (when) they had a couple guys getting nicked up before their playoff game," he said. "There's only going to be one happy team out of 32 and I think what (Payton is) thinking about is that (playoff) run."

Under Sean Payton, the Saints are 0-5 in Week 17 season finales.  In two of the three seasons the Saints were Playoff-bound, Payton either rested or pulled his starters early (’06, ’09.)  Drew Brees played in the first two series of ’06 31-21 loss to CAR at home before Jamie Martin took over.  In ’09, he never took a snap; instead, Payton started Mark Brunnell.

Fearless Prediction: Sean Payton is the NFL equivalent of a Chess Grand Master.  It’s all about strategy and gamesmanship with him.  He was raised by Bill Parcells, a Coach so notoriously tight-lipped about injuries the NFL’s current rules on injury reporting came as a result of Parcells.  I’ve tried to look at Payton’s announcement as just another of his “Look! A Bear!” moves to throw the opponent off his trail.  Telling Rivera he’ll bring the “A Game” and Superstar Roster of the NFL’s #1 Offense on the field Sunday makes the Panthers do what—“play up” to the Saints’ level or “play down?” Panthers will hit the Saints with everything they’ve got.  Hopefully, Payton will watch the scoreboard.  Hopefully, Saints assistants will give him updates on the Record pursuits.  Hopefully, once Payton sees all hope is lost for the #2 Seed and Drew’s ahead of Brady and got his TD to stay on track to overtake Unitas, he’ll pull Brees as soon as humanly possible.  Between Special Teams & the running backs, the Saints can get the 219 yards to become the NEW “Greatest Show on Turf.”  Payton can deny it all he wants, but he wants this Offense to go down in NFL history as one of the greatest of all time.  Then, he can pull all the rest of the starters out of the game and let Carolina have it as his annual present to the NFL unfortunate with lots of free time on their hands in January.  Who cares!  Preventing a repeat of last year’s Seattle Debacle should be Job #1 Sunday—even at the expense of a few records if need be.  What’s more important—records or Lombardi Trophies?  Ask the 2000 Rams.  The year the Defending Super Bowl Champion set all those records with the “Greatest Show on Turf” and NFL MVP Marshall Faulk, they lost in the Wild Card Round to a team that had never won a Playoff Game in their 33 year history: the New Orleans Saints, 31-28.

My prediction based on Coach Payton coming to his senses: Panthers 28 – Saints 14.

Photo Credit: Michael De Mocker/The Times-Picayune