NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Saints coach Sean Payton wants to make history this weekend.
How badly remains to be seen. That will be judged in part by the players he tries to win with when the playoff-bound Saints (13-2) host the reeling Carolina Panthers (6-9) on Sunday.
With the Saints having clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed and Carolina out of the playoffs, this matchup has “low stakes” written all over it – except for one thing Payton made a point of mentioning.
“We have a chance to win more games in the regular season than any team in Saints history,” said Payton, who has now coached New Orleans to 13 wins in three seasons since taking over in 2006. “There’s a lot at stake relative to some individuals, but also the evaluation process and then also as a team being able to hit that 14th win. I think that that’s a lot.”
Payton declined to get specific about who he meant by “some individuals,” but odds are he was talking about reserves who’ve been competing all season for snaps – not players like record-setting quarterback Drew Brees, dynamic running back Alvin Kamara or leading receiver Michael Thomas.
Although Payton has resisted divulging personnel plans, it hardly seems worth the risk to subject the club’s most productive players to possible injury, considering a trip to the Super Bowl is two home victories away after this final regular-season obligation has been dispensed with.
If Brees doesn’t play, second-sting QB Teddy Bridgewater likely will start. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he sees little point in preparing his team to face someone who had appeared in only four games in purely mop-up duty and has attempted one pass (an incompletion).
“We’re preparing for Drew,” Rivera said. “We’re preparing for Kamara, we’re preparing for (Mark) Ingram, and we’re preparing for their best shot.”
If anything, Rivera is more concerned with keeping his own players sharp. As a former player himself, Rivera appreciates the challenge of getting emotionally and mentally ready for a game that – at least for established players whose futures are secure – won’t have much riding on it.
“It’s a challenge. At the end of the day, it really comes down to the players controlling it themselves,” Rivera said. “I can say what I want to say and try and do things the way I want to do them, but it really does come down to the guys stepping up. It’s difficult. I get it. I have been there. This is my 30th year in the league, so I’ve seen all kinds of things.”
Some other story lines surrounding Panthers-Saints:
Panthers undrafted free agent Kyle Allen will make his first career start at quarterback.
The 6-foot-3, 211-pound Allen replaces Taylor Heinicke, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after injuring his elbow in his first career start last week, a 24-10 loss to the Falcons.
The team signed Garrett Gilbert on Wednesday to back up Allen. Both were in Panthers training camp.
Cam Newton remains on the team’s active 53-man roster, but the team does not want to activate him for the game because he’s dealing with a nagging shoulder injury that limits velocity on longer throws.
It’s fair to say the 26-year-old Bridgewater has unfinished business in the NFL. The former first-round draft choice by Minnesota had practically all of his previous two seasons wiped out by a career-threatening knee injury. The Saints, who’ve had their sights set on the Super Bowl since coming a play away from advancing to last season’s NFC championship game, traded for Bridgewater late in preseason as insurance. Brees is fine, but if the Saints want to make sure he stays that way for the playoff opener, Bridgewater could see his first sustained action in a game since the 2015 season.
“Just thinking about the road I’ve had to take to get to this point, I’m excited,” Bridgewater said, adding that he expects to be ready if called upon. “Being in the position I’m in, you always have to stay ready and that’s been my mindset since I arrived here. … Your opportunity can come within the blink of an eye.”
Payton said Bridgewater “has a live arm” and “very quickly picked up our system.”
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey needs 155 yards receiving against the Saints to join Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.
However, it’s unclear if the Panthers will go for that record or not. Rivera has said the team needs to be careful with some of its stars and use this opportunity to look at some younger players.
McCaffrey eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing last week and also set an NFL record for receptions by a running back in a season with 106.
This could be the final game for several long-time Panthers. Center Ryan Kalil already has said he’ll retire after the season. Defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Thomas Davis have expiring contracts.
Peppers, 37, has not said if he plans to play next season. The 35-year-old Davis, who served a four-game, league-imposed suspension to start the season, said recently he wants to play next season.