For a second straight season, the New Orleans Saints aren't headed to the playoffs. Sean Payton may be headed out of town.
With speculation already growing about Payton's next job, the Saints will try to avoid finishing with their worst record of his tenure Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
Payton turned New Orleans (6-9) from a laughingstock to a serious contender in the NFC, winning its only Super Bowl after the 2009 season. The Saints have reached the playoffs in five of the nine seasons under Payton, matching their total over their first 39 years.
Payton, who was suspended for all of 2012 for his role in the bounty scandal, could be on his way out after the season despite having one year left on his contract. He reportedly has a clause in his contract that allows him to leave if owner Tom Benson isn't in control of the team.
There's also rampant speculation that he's looking for a new challenge with the New York Giants, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Miami and San Diego among the potential suitors.
The speculation isn't limited to only Payton with quarterback Drew Brees, wide receiver Marques Colston, tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans potentially playing their last game for New Orleans. Brees found the notion outlandish.
"I wonder how some people in this industry have a job, reporting some of the stuff that they report, with their sources or their cousin or whoever," said Brees, who turns 37 next month and has one year left on his contract. "That's why I just kind of laugh.
"Call me naive or just call me somebody who has a feeling. I feel like we're headed in the right direction."
Payton is hoping the immediate future includes the Saints avoiding a 10-loss season for the first time since they went 3-13 in 2005, the season prior to his hiring and the acquisition of Brees.
"Perception is important and I think how you finish the season is important," Payton said. "You work so long and to put the hours in - the players and coaches and everyone involved do. The taste in your mouth if you don't have success is terrible."
New Orleans has won two of three following a four-game skid, beating Jacksonville 38-27 last week behind Brees' 412 yards and three touchdowns despite playing with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
He's connected on 69.8 percent of his attempts for 1,065 yards with eight TDs and no interceptions over the last three games.
Brees has been helped by the addition of Tim Hightower, who has rushed for 261 yards and three scores on 68 carries over that stretch. Hightower, who missed the previous three seasons because of a knee injury and related complications, had 122 yards and two TDs on 27 attempts last week.
"All I know is that I've given it my best these last several weeks and plan to do so this final week, if that's good enough to earn me an opportunity next year," Hightower said.
The Saints' offense ranks second in the NFL with 404.7 yards per game, and it's the top passing unit at 309.8. However, those numbers are undermined by a 31st-ranked defense that surrenders an average of 413.4 yards - eighth-worst in NFL history. New Orleans has allowed 459 points, 28 shy of the franchise record for the most in a season set by 1980's 1-15 team.
Despite the Saints' defensive deficiencies, they ended the Falcons' 5-0 start with a 31-21 win Oct. 11. Brees was 30 of 39 for 312 yards with a touchdown.
Atlanta (8-7) never recovered, losing seven of eight games and six in a row before winning 23-17 at Jacksonville in Week 15. The Falcons followed that with a 20-13 win over Carolina last week, ending the Panthers' bid for an undefeated season.
Despite the victories, Atlanta is eliminated from playoff contention for a third straight season.
"We'd been beaten, we'd been embarrassed, and I wanted to see how our guys would react," first-year coach Dan Quinn said. "Over the last couple of weeks, I really think we've been playing more like the team I thought we'd be and can be and will be when I see how hard the guys are playing for one another."
Julio Jones has already set franchise records with league highs of 127 receptions and 1,722 yards, while his eight touchdowns are two shy of his career high set in 2012. He had nine catches for 178 yards last week, 70 coming on a spectacular leaping touchdown grab and run.
Jones, though, only has two TDs in eight meetings with the Saints and none in the last three. He had 93 yards on six catches in Week 5.
Matt Ryan had scoring passes to Devonta Freeman and Roddy White in that matchup, finishing with 295 yards on 30-for-40 passing while being sacked a season-high five times.
Ryan has four TDs compared to five picks over the last five games, and he hasn't tossed more than one scoring pass in any of them.