New Orleans Saints
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Saints stars will likely be camped on bench Sunday
The New Orleans Saints don't want to lose their edge.
But they also realize they have nothing tangible to gain or lose in their regular-season finale.
They will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC regardless of what happens in their game against Carolina on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
As a result, they can afford to rest injured players who would be healthy enough to play in a game with more at stake than this one as they await their first playoff game on Jan. 12 or 13.
They also can rest or limit the snaps played by key players in order to avoid or minimize the risk of injury.
Quarterback Drew Brees indicated after practice Wednesday that he won't play the whole game - if he plays at all - and other players would sit out.
"You want to be the best that you can be when the playoffs arrive," said Brees, who added that backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would play. "I don't think we're worried about killing momentum or anything else because we're not goofing around at practice. I mean we're taking practice serious, guys are getting the work done we need to get done. We're going through the process, we're going through our routine and preparing ourselves to play."
This game also represents the final game conditions under which they can improve for the post-season, and even though they are 13-2 there are areas in which they can improve.
The offense had its best performance in a month during a 31-28 victory against Pittsburgh last week, but the running game netted a mere 57 yards.
The defense had its worst game in several weeks as the Steelers passed for 364 yards, though they ran for just 65.
The special teams had a rare breakdown as Pittsburgh 's line got major penetration and blocked a 50-yard field-goal attempt by Wil Lutz.
So even though the outcome of this game is essentially meaningless, the matchup does present a challenge as head coach Sean Payton tries to balance the attempt to stay sharp and get better while taking advantage of the opportunity to get key players fresh for the playoffs.
"At the end of the day it's a football game in the NFL," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "(The Panthers) are going to come in here and try to get a win and we need to get a win. Regardless of what we've already taken care of, the last thing you want to do at any point in this league is lose.
"The moment you start to relax and start thinking about the playoffs and things down the road that's when you begin to slip and lose your edge, you begin to lose what's driving you."
These teams are meeting for the second time in 14 days as New Orleans prevailed at Carolina 12-9 on Dec. 17.
Much has changed for the Panthers (6-9) since that game. They have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and have shut down quarterback Cam Newton, who had been playing with a shoulder injury. Carolina has lost seven consecutive games.
The Panthers will use their third starting quarterback in as many games as Kyle Allen gets his first NFL start. He completed all four of his passes for 38 yards in relief of Taylor Heinicke in a 24-10 loss to Atlanta last week. Heinicke suffered an injury to his left elbow during that game and was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
SERIES HISTORY: 48th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 24-23, including a 12-11 mark in New Orleans. But the Saints have won the last four meetings, including three last season. New Orleans won twice in the Superdome last season, 31-21 in the regular season and 31-26 in a wild-card playoff game, the only post-season meeting between the long-time NFC South rivals. The Saints prevailed, 12-9, on the road two weeks ago.