NEW ORLEANS (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton has spent much of his team's erratic season trying to build his players up.
He purposefully culled examples of what the Saints did well in their first four losses, hoping they would see how close they were to turning around a campaign that got off to a disappointing start.
Now the Saints are coming off their most impressive performance of the season, a 44-23 rout of Green Bay, and Payton wants to minimize any potential for complacency.
''It is a challenge - having that balance of not allowing the lows to affect your practice week and your confidence and also not allowing your big wins to move you in another direction,'' Payton said Monday. ''It's very important that you're looking closely at things that need to be cleaned up even if it's a big win.''
One of New Orleans' offensive captains, right tackle Zach Strief, put it another way.
''The important thing to understand and realize is that winning a game is not arriving,'' he said.
Yet, after all the consternation in New Orleans stemming from the Saints' 2-4 start, the club has arrived at a high-stakes juncture. New Orleans can enter the second half of its season atop the NFC South if it can win at Carolina on Thursday night.
Strief said the Saints know they are fortunate to be in such a position, having essentially gotten help in the form of sub-.500 play by all of their divisional foes.
''It's better than the alternative of we've got a team in the division that hasn't lost yet,'' Strief said. ''It certainly puts us in a better situation and makes us feel better about the whole deal. You know, winning your division is going to get you a home game in the playoffs.''
For now, the Saints once again look like a favorite to win the NFC South. New Orleans' offense ranked second in the NFL after Sunday night's action, and has been productive without forcing Drew Brees to carry a disproportionate load.
Brees is throwing for about 318 yards per game, placing him among the league leaders in that category, but the Saints also have a top-10 running game.
Against Green Bay, New Orleans gained nearly 200 yards rushing, led by Mark Ingram's career-high 172 yards on 24 carries.
While New Orleans' defense gave up nearly 500 yards, the unit also produced three turnovers, got another stop on fourth-and-short and forced the Packers to settle for field goals on three other promising drives.
''We've got a pretty good defense,'' linebacker Curtis Lofton said. ''When you face an elite offense like Green Bay ... they're going to get their yards. They're going to get their big plays. But at the same time you've got to keep them out of the end zone and I thought as a defense we did that.''
On Thursday, the Saints (3-4) will have to prove they can win on the road, something they have yet to do in four tries this season, though three of their road losses were decided by a field goal or less.
''You look at how we've lost three of those four road games and you say, `We made some critical errors at the end,''' Strief said. ''It's not that we were getting dominated on the road.''
As far as Payton is concerned, the Saints would be better off diverting their attention from the divisional race and their road losing streak, and keeping their focus more on nailing down their assignments and technique in practice.
''Certainly there's all sorts of goals and there's big picture, small picture and I think what we've tried to do is really focus on the smallest picture, and that's our own team getting better,'' Payton said. ''As much is said and written week to week about how the league's doing, who's playing well, who's not, if you can really focus on how to improve yourself, I think that handles itself.''
NOTES: Payton gave players Monday off but the club filed a mandatory injury report listing a hand injury for LB David Hawthorne and a knee injury for FB Austin Johnson, both of whom played Sunday night. The report also indicated that C Jonathan Goodwin (knee, ankle) and LB Kyle Knox (ankle) are healed enough to practice on a limited basis.
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