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TallySaint 12-27-2006 07:18 AM

Balancing Act (Rest Key Players?)
No. 2 seed and assured a first-round bye in the playoffs, Coach Sean Payton is wrestling with how much to rest his key players in Sunday's regular-season finale without losing momentum

Wednesday, December 27, 2006
By Mike Triplett, Times-Picayune

In his first year on the job, Saints Coach Sean Payton may have already done enough to make him the leading candidate to be the NFL's Coach of the Year.

But the hard work is just beginning.

This week Payton will face one of the most difficult dilemmas a coach can encounter -- how to treat a "meaningless" Week 17 game, this one against the Carolina Panthers at noon Sunday at the Superdome.

The Saints (10-5) have already clinched the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC and the first-round bye that comes with it. Win or lose, they can't move up or down. But they also want to secure momentum heading into their playoff opener, which is nearly three weeks away.

"I'm wrestling with all of it right now, and this is the first time I've been in this position, not just as a head coach, but period," said Payton. He was the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants when they earned a No. 1 seed in 2000, but that required a victory in Week 17.

Payton said he still has not decided what his plan will be, but he knows one thing for certain: Whatever decision he makes won't be judged until after the Saints win or lose their first playoff game.

"It's like going for two," Payton said. "Nobody asked me why I didn't go for a two-point play in the fourth quarter (when the Saints took a 26-7 lead over the Giants on Sunday). But you would have asked me if we had lost by a point. When it comes down to the topic of how you are going to treat a game like this, it varies around the league. If you play well in that first playoff game, then obviously it was the right thing to do. We'll do what's best."

Payton said the argument can be made that this week's game is no different than the fourth preseason game, when most NFL teams play their starters for only one series.

The biggest difference is roster size. With only 53 players on the roster and 46 active on game day, the Saints don't have an abundance of backups to work with.

One other difference is that the Panthers 7-8 are fighting for the final playoff spot in the NFC. But Payton said he won't let that influence his decision.

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