BRETT MARTEL,AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — If Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints are inclined to reflect back on anything from 2011, it’s not so much their recently concluded record-breaking regular season as their disappointing first-round playoff loss to Seattle last January.
“You understand in our game that when you line up in the postseason, there’s a finality to it,” Payton said Monday as the Saints began preparations for their playoff opener against Detroit.
“There’s a lot of things that were positive and a lot of things that were accomplished with the season we just had, and yet the reason you try to win as many games as you can is to prepare yourself for what we’re getting ready to accomplish now,” Payton continued. “I don’t think you reflect now. You are still driven by the challenge ahead.”
The 2011 Saints might be better than the 2009 team that won the Super Bowl. Both were 13-3 in the regular season, and this season’s squad set several NFL and franchise records, mostly on offense.
The Saints 7,474 offensive yards set a new league mark by 399 yards. Drew Brees’ 5,476 yards passing was the most for any quarterback by more than 200 yards, while his 468 completions and 71.2 completion rate also set new league highs. Darren Sproles’ 2,696 combined yards rushing, receiving and on returns also established a new NFL single-season best.
Those records were only a sampling of the history New Orleans made this season, though all that will mean a lot less if they suffer an early exit from the playoffs.
Last season, the Saints won 11 games and were expected to roll past a Seahawks squad that was the first division winner in NFL history with a losing record. The Seahawks wound up celebrating an upset, and the Saints like to think now that they learned from it.
“It helps that you’ve been through it and experienced a tough loss in a game you were expected to win in a crucial time,” safety Roman Harper said. “If you don’t show up and play with a sense of urgency and discipline, a team can beat you. … If you don’t come prepared with a sense of urgency, you will get your tail kicked in this league.”
The Saints have been building momentum for two months now, winning eight straight games, including six by double digits. They’ve outscored their last three opponents 132-53 combined. Two of those victories came against division foes who had been playing well lately in Atlanta and Carolina.
On Sunday against the Panthers, the Saints could have begun resting starters early in the second half, when their chances of improving their No. 3 seeding diminished as second-seed San Francisco pulled away from St. Louis. Instead, the Saints chose an aggressive approach that turned a one-score halftime lead into a 45-17 blowout.
In the process, they solidified their credentials as a playoff favorite, even if they didn’t get a top-two seeding in the NFC and will have to win three postseason games to get back to the Super Bowl.
“Sean’s been saying for a couple of weeks now that if we just continue to play like we’re playing and continue in the path we’re on, that a lot of teams are not going to want to face us,” Harper said. “You can say that now, but then if we go out and lose a game, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
Saints right tackle Zach Strief also was guarded about the significance of the Saints’ recent sting of lopsided wins.
“This is a game that can turn quickly on you,” Strief said. “Us playing well the last few weeks doesn’t give us anything but confidence going in. It doesn’t give us a win.”
Payton said he was happy to see his players being recognized both for individual and team records. For now, though, his message to his players is that they need to maintain the team chemistry that helped them win big lately and forget about the accolades already accrued — at least until the postseason ends.
“It’s such a team sport,” Payton said. “It seems like the last two weeks there’s been a lot of talk about individual accomplishments, as there should be with the passing record, Darren Sproles. … (But) this is the time of year when the focus really shifts to us playing our best football as a team.”
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