METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints are not taking it easy after clinching the opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title.
Not with the possibly of getting the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
New Orleans clinched at least an NFC wild-berth berth with a 17-14 victory Monday night against Atlanta. If the Saints beat Tampa Bay (9-6) on Sunday in the Superdome and Atlanta loses at home to 2-13 Carolina, New Orleans will be the No. 1 seed. Otherwise, the Saints will be No. 5.
'We're going to be on a crash course for this week's game, period,' coach Sean Payton said Tuesday. 'Our focus is strictly on playing this game and knowing that there's still a lot at stake potentially.
'This is going to be a tough test for us, especially coming off of a Monday night game. Tampa is coming in and they're still in the hunt, and when you're in the hunt you're desperate. By this time next week we'll know where the chips are at and then you go forward.'
This is the first time in Payton's five seasons that the Saints' regular-season finale has had playoff implications for them. Last season they had already secured the No. 1 seed before the finale and Payton rested many of his starters in a 23-10 loss at Carolina.
In 2008, when they finished 8-8, and 2007 when they were 7-9, the Saints had been eliminated from the playoff race before their finale. In Payton's first season in 2006, New Orleans was locked into the No. 2 seed and he rested several starters in a 31-21 loss to the Panthers.
If the Saints are the No. 5 seed they will play a wild-card game at the NFC West champion, which will be the winner of the St. Louis-Seattle game Sunday night. Payton said there's not enough time in a short week to begin preparing for either the Rams or Seahawks.
'Let's win first, then figure out what happens after that,' linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. 'Let the mathematicians and the NFL figure out who is the one seed and all that good stuff.'
New Orleans is making consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since a three-year string in 1990-92, but Payton said last season's success has changed the expectations for the organization.
'I would say that once you've had a chance to win a championship, your thirst for more of that type of success only grows stronger,' Payton said. 'You never take for granted these seasons or these years because this group isn't something that's a permanent thing. I don't view it as a checkmark in what we've wanted to accomplish. We want to accomplish bigger things than just getting into the postseason.'
To do that, the Saints (11-4) and the Falcons (12-3) could meet again in the playoffs. The two teams don't really care for each other and the Saints may have added fuel to that fire after Monday's victory. Several defensive players posed for a photo while standing on the Falcons logo at midfield in the Georgia Dome.
Vilma said the Saints were not trying to show up the Falcons.
'We clinched a playoff berth, that was huge,' Vilma said. 'These are memories for us to have for years down the road. We wanted to take that picture. It had nothing to do with Atlanta. It had nothing to do with showing them up in their home stadium.
'It was us being happy.'
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)