NEW ORLEANS ― A year ago, the Saints entered the final weekend of the season with their postseason seed all but locked in.
But they played with one eye on the scoreboard and one eye on the field and ended up not only losing to Tampa Bay, they lost three key players heading into the playoffs.
On Sunday, against Carolina, they faced an eerily similar situation.
This time the Saints didn’t care about other games.
And this time, and for the first time in the Sean Payton era, the Saints won their regular season finale, pasting Carolina 45-17.
"I think we accomplished everything today we we wanted to accomplish," said Quarterback Drew Brees. "Going into the playoffs you want to be playing your best football."
The win improved the Saints to 13-3, tying a franchise record and, combined with San Francisco’s win over St. Louis, pegged New Orleans to the No. 3 seed in the NFL playoffs.
In securing the win, the Saints set a gaggle of records, including the NFL record for yards in a season, the NFL record for first downs in a season and the NFL record for completions in a season.
Drew Brees bested his NFL record for completion percentage of 70.62 percent, finishing this year at 71.2 percent. Darren Sproles set the NFL combined yards in a season record with 2,696 yards.
"I know there were a lot of records set," said Brees. "It just makes the season more special, but we want to remember it for one other big thing."
Meanwhile, the Saints will face either the Falcons or Lions on Saturday.
Brees finished the game 28 of 35 for 389 yards with five touchdowns and one interception and a 140.7 QB rating. His 46 touchdown passes are one more than Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers will finish with, giving him the most scoring passes in the NFL.
With offensive records as the storyline heading into Sunday’s regular season finale, the Saints started like lightning.
Running back Pierre Thomas ran for five yards, Brees hit receiver Marques Colston for 18 yards, then hit Thomas for a 22-yard screen pass and running back Chris Ivory darted 35 yards untouched into the end zone.
The drive went 80 yards and took up only 1:39 off the clock to give the Saints a 7-0 lead.
If Saints fans thought Sunday would be easy, however, Carolina messed that thought process up immediately. The Panthers drove 80 yards in 11 plays, eating 6:39 off the clock to tie the game at 7-7 on Cam Newton’s touchdown pass to Steve Smith.
New Orleans answered with a nine-play, 83-yard drive that ended when Brees hit a lunging Colston in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. The score gave the Saints a franchise-record for points in a season, besting 2009’s 510 total.
An interception swap gave Carolina the ball at New Orleans’ 36. But the defense held the Panthers to a 41-yard field goal and New Orleans led 14-10 with 5:50 to go in the opening half.
John Kasay’s 43-yard field goal pushed the Saints lead to 17-10, but Carolina came right back, driving 80 yards in less than a minute-and-a-half, tying the game on Jonathan Stewart’s 29-yard touchdown run.
It didn’t take long for the Saints to push back into the lead. Using all three timeouts remaining, the Saints moved 81 yards in 1:11 and took a 24-17 lead into halftime after Brees hit Colston for a 42-yard touchdown.
New Orleans extended its lead to 31-17 when Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 19-yard touchdown, then to 38-17 on a 1-yard touchdown catch by fullback Jed Collins.
Brees hit for a 9-yard touchdown and the rout was all but complete.