Saints to play starters with shot at No. 1 or 2 seed

METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton didn’t hesitate when asked whether the New Orleans Saints might consider resting starters at Carolina in Week 17.

“No, no, no, no, no, no. Absolutely no,” Payton said. “We’re still playing for the 1-, 2- or 3-seed.”

That is true. The Saints (12-3) are projected to be the No. 3 seed in the NFC. But they can become the No. 1 seed if they win, the Green Bay Packers (12-3) lose at Detroit and the San Francisco 49ers (12-3) lose at Seattle.

The Saints can become the No. 2 seed if they win and the Packers or 49ers lose.

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However, there is a quirky reason the question was worth asking: If the Packers win, as expected, it won’t actually matter whether the Saints win or lose.

The Saints would still become the No. 2 seed with a loss if Green Bay beats Detroit and the Seahawks (11-4) beat San Francisco. In that scenario, Seattle would win the NFC West and the Saints would win a tiebreaker over Seattle at 12-4.

So that means the only way New Orleans can truly benefit by playing its starters is if the Lions (3-11-1) pull off a major upset over the Packers. As of Wednesday, the Lions are 12.5-point underdogs, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

The Saints faced a very similar situation at the end of the 2010 season, when they had an outside chance at the No. 1 seed instead of the No. 5 seed. That year, the Saints played their starters, but they didn’t get the help they needed. And they wound up losing four key players to injuries that knocked them out of their playoff loss the next week (Malcolm Jenkins, Jimmy Graham, Chris Ivory and Danny Clark).

Payton later expressed regret over his decision to play his starters in that Week 17 game because it was such a long shot.

But when asked about that memory Wednesday, Payton said, “I don’t think this is a long shot that we need this week.”

The Saints have a handful of injured starters whose status might be in doubt regardless of Payton’s approach. Safety Vonn Bell (knee) and guards Larry Warford (knee) and Andrus Peat (arm) were all inactive last week because of injuries. And cornerback Eli Apple (ankle) and safety Marcus Williams (groin) left last week’s game early with injuries — though the severity is unknown.

Receiver Michael Thomas was also wearing a wrap around his hand and pinkie finger this week during charity appearances, but sources suggested it was not a significant ailment.

The Saints will release their first injury report of the week later Wednesday.

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