METAIRIE — It didn’t take Saints coach Sean Payton long to decide that his team, which has won its last seven games, needs to keep playing with the same intensity it has during the past two months.
Faced with the same dilemma as a year ago — trying to get a higher seed for the upcoming playoffs when it seems unlikely they’ll achieve it — Payton made the decision Wednesday to play his regulars in Sunday’s regular-season finale with the Carolina Panthers.
Last year, Payton chose to play his starters in the final game with an outside chance of claiming the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win and an Atlanta Falcons’ loss. But that meant doing a lot of scoreboard-watching, which didn’t turn out so well when the Falcons won.
On Sunday, the 12-3 Saints, who can be no worse than the No. 3 seed for the upcoming playoffs, can get the No. 2 seed and first-round bye that goes with it, if they beat the Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the San Francisco 49ers (12-3) lose to the lowly St. Louis Rams (2-13).
While the second part of the equation is unlikely to happen, Payton said he wants his team to take the momentum it built during its seven-game winning streak into the playoffs.
“We talked about it at length,” Payton said Wednesday. “Our approach is going to be much like it has been: We’re going to play all of our guys. There’s still seeding at stake.”
The only difference in last year and this season, he said, is he won’t be paying much attention to the out-of-town scoreboard Sunday.
“I know it’s similar to a year ago,” Payton said. “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 postseason. I’d like to think it’s something we need. … We’re going into it full-speed ahead.”
GETTING A BREAK: The Saints practiced Wednesday for the first time since clinching the NFC South title with a 45-16 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
As is his custom after a Monday nighter, Payton gave his players a little extra time to recover from the late game and had them report to the team’s training facility after lunch on Wednesday.
That pushed meetings and practice back to the late afternoon hours and will also bring them in a little later on Thursday.
PRACTICE REPORT: Not participating in Wednesday’s practice were middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee), wide receiver Lance More (hamstring), free safety Malcolm Jenkins (neck) and tight end John Gilmore (toe).
Vilma has missed some practices early in the work week since returning from arthroscopic surgery last month and likely was held out to rest the knee.
Running back Mark Ingram (turf toe) worked on a limited basis for the first time since being injured and missing three games, while Jonathan Casillas (knee) had full participation after being sidelined for three games. Cornerback Patrick Robinson (hip) was worked fully.
ROSTER MOVES: With Gilmore hurting, the Saints signed veteran Tory Humphrey to add some depth at the position behind Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham and undrafted rookie Michael Higgins.
To make room on the 53-man roster for Humphrey, the Saints released reserve tackle William Robinson.
Also, the Saints signed wide receiver Andy Tanner and running back Chris Taylor to the practice squad and released quarterback Sean Canfield. Taylor takes the place of running back Joique Bell, who was signed to the Detroit Lions’ active roster.
PRO BOWL ALTERNATES: After having five players named as primary selections to the annual Pro Bowl game on Tuesday, Payton said the Saints also have four alternates.
Chosen as alternates were Jenkins, strong safety Roman Harper, fullback Jed Collins and punter Thomas Morstead.
Quarterback Drew Brees, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, tackle Jermon Bushrod and Graham were on the NFC team announced Tuesday for the Jan. 29 game in Honolulu.
BREES EARNS NFL HONOR: For the third time this season, and a club-record 13th time since joining the Saints, Brees has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old single-season yardage record in completing 23 of 39 passes with four touchdowns Monday night. His final pass of the evening, a 9-yard TD to running back Darren Sproles, gave Brees 5,087 yards this season — topping Marino’s old mark of 5,084.
PLAY IT AGAIN: For his efforts in the win over the Falcons, Brees is a finalist for the FedEx NFL Air Player of the Week award along with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
Brees has won twice this season, including last week.
Fans can vote online for the FedEx Air & Ground NFL Players of the Week until 2 p.m. Friday at www.NFL.com/FedEx with the winners to be announced later than day.