Falcons, Saints should use caution

Sean Payton played his starters in Week 17 llast season, and the Saints suffered several key injuries. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

If we’ve learned anything about Sean Payton and Mike Smith this season, it’s that neither coach likes to use the brakes.

Whether it’s Payton leaving Drew Brees in during a blowout win against the Falcons on Monday night or Smith going for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime against the Saints earlier in the season, both coaches have demonstrated aggressive styles.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Payton said the Saints will play their starters in Sunday’s season finale against the Carolina Panthers and Smith said the Falcons will do the same against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Being aggressive is a big part of the reason the Saints and Falcons already have clinched playoff berths. But maybe it’s time for Payton and Smith to take their feet off the accelerator, just for a bit.

There’s a very real chance the Saints and Falcons already have done all they can do to max out where they’re seeded in the NFC playoffs. The Saints likely are headed for the No. 3 seed and the Falcons will be either No. 5 or 6.

“We’re playing some of our best football here the last few weeks,’’ Payton said. “There’s some value to that.’’

That’s true. The Saints (12-3) have won seven straight games and carrying momentum into the playoffs is important. The Falcons (9-6) had some momentum going, but they lost it Monday night when they were trounced by the Saints. Regaining some positive momentum could be one reason Smith is planning to play his starters.

“We know there are some things that are set in concrete,’’ Smith said. “We know we'll be playing the following week. We don't know who or where or when, and we've just got to go through our normal preparation and prepare to beat Tampa Bay.’’

But the reality is Payton and Smith are playing a dangerous game with their starters. They’re running the risk of injuries that could be very costly in the playoffs.

Of all the coaches in the league, Payton should be most aware of the potential for damage. He went through a similar situation last season. With the Saints holding onto only the slightest shot at a better seed, Payton played his starters in the final regular-season game. Tight end Jimmy Graham, safety Malcolm Jenkins and running back Chris Ivory all suffered injuries in the first half.

Events elsewhere decided the Saints could not move up and Payton eventually pulled his starters. But the damage already was done. Graham, Jenkins and Ivory weren’t available when the Saints went out to Seattle for a first-round game.

They ended up losing to a team that didn’t even finish the regular season with a winning record.

“I think we all found ourselves scoreboard watching a little bit as to what was happening in that other game (last season)," Brees said. "And therefore I feel like, not that we took a step back in that game, but we just didn't progress. And our mindset is we want to continue to progress and get better. I think there's things that serve you well in this game if you can continue to stay on the rise as you go into the playoffs, whether they're just confidence builders or situations that come up that you fight through. So I think we're taking on a little bit different mindset than we did last year at this time in a very similar situation.’’

Payton has said he won’t be watching the scoreboard for updates on the game between San Francisco and St. Louis, which will start at the same time as the New Orleans game. Let’s hope he’s not serious about that because Payton should have someone on his staff assigned to give him constant updates on the 49ers and Rams.

The only way the Saints can do better than the No. 3 seed is if the 49ers lose to St. Louis. If that happens and the Saints win, they would move into the No. 2 seed and get a first-round bye. But that’s a pretty unlikely scenario. The Rams are 2-13 and are expected to start third-string quarterback Kellen Clemens.

“Our league is a league where every week, any team that lines up can win,’’ Payton said. “A perfect example is the team we're talking about is a team that beat us.’’

It’s true the Rams upset the Saints in the middle of the season. But that was a fluke. The 49ers have lots to play for and, if they start pulling away from the Rams, Payton should immediately pull his starters from the game to minimize exposure to injury.

Atlanta’s situation is a bit different. By the time the Falcons start their game at 4:15 p.m. ET, they’ll know if they have any shot at the No. 5 seed. The Detroit Lions play an early game against the Green Bay Packers, who already have clinched the No. 1 seed.

If Detroit wins, the Lions are the No. 5 seed, no matter what Atlanta does. If Detroit loses, the Falcons can move into the No. 5 spot with a victory.

“We’re not thinking about the second season,’’ Smith said.

But maybe he should be, just a bit. If the Lions win, Smith might be wise to treat the meeting with Tampa Bay like a preseason game. Let the starters play a few series, just to shake off the frustration of the loss to New Orleans and try to stay sharp.

Smith has had four straight winning seasons, but he’s yet to win a playoff game. That’s where his focus should be. There’s not much difference between the fifth and sixth seed. Heck, Smith can just look back to last season when the Falcons were the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the Packers were No. 6.

Green Bay came into Atlanta and won on its way to winning the Super Bowl.

Yeah, it’s nice that Payton and Smith spout all the old clichés about taking it one game at a time. But Payton and Smith are in situations this week where they should be looking ahead or, at the very least, ready to adjust as the day plays out.

If the door is open for either of them to better their playoff seed, fine, go for it. But, if that door starts closing, they need to sit their starters immediately.

If they leave their starters in unnecessarily, Payton and Smith are running the risk of injuries. If they’re not willing to at least tap the brakes a little, they could be out of gas when they get to the playoffs.