METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt is urging his players to keep thinking about the Lombardi Trophy as they prepare for what otherwise is an anticlimactic season finale between two non-playoff teams.
"There's two types of Super Bowl winners: Those that win and those that win one. And our goal is to win two and we're working toward that goal right now," Vitt said Monday as he recalled a recent pep talk to the team.
"Now we can't play for it this year, but that doesn't mean you can't come to practice every day and you can't get better," Vitt added. "Our players have really taken it to heart and it's been fun to be around."
After New Orleans (7-8) hosts Carolina (6-9) on Sunday, it will close the book on what Vitt said will go down as one of his favorite teams in more than three decades of coaching.
Although the Saints have followed up the offseason bounty scandal by missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, Vitt said he will remember how the team refused to quit.
After starting 0-4, the Saints rallied to even their record at 5-5. When a three-game skid from late November to early December erased any realistic postseason hopes, the Saints responded with a 41-0 rout of Tampa Bay on Dec. 16, followed by a 34-31 overtime triumph at Dallas on Sunday, when New Orleans also was officially eliminated from playoff contention because of other results.
New Orleans now has a chance to close the season on a three-game winning streak and even its record at 8-8. And Vitt, who has been filling in for suspended head coach Sean Payton since serving a six-game bounty suspension of his own, bristles at the notion that he would tinker with substitution patterns to shield veteran stars from potential injury or give younger players more experience.
"The best players are going to play and we're going to play the game to win," Vitt said. "We're not a farm team."
As far as Vitt was concerned, not even Christmas was going to distract him from trying to close the season with a victory that could make the Saints 8-4 over their final 12 games.
"I'm not waiting for anyone with a white beard to come down the chimney and hand us the divisional championship," Vitt said. "We'll try to get our coaches out of here tonight a bit early to have some dinner with their family and then spend tomorrow morning (off). But listen, we're getting ready for a game.
"When you get into this business, you say to yourself, 'You're not going to enjoy Thanksgiving. You're not going to enjoy Christmas. You're working through those things.' So I'll look forward to Easter in the springtime and, I guess, Arbor Day. That's the nature of our business," Vitt added. "We certainly don't want to let our fans down and we want to play very, very well this week."
If the Saints don't play exceedingly well on defense, they could set an unflattering record for the most yards allowed in a single season. New Orleans heads into the game having given up 6,512 yards, 281 yards short of the record 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, a team for which Vitt served as a third-year assistant.
Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said he can't worry about avoiding that record now.
"I don't really care. The main thing for me is we want to get a win. So if we give up however many yards and we get a win, I'll take the W any day," Lofton said. "This year has been very different for me and a lot of the guys, you know, giving up all the yards and all that stuff. The first four games was tough, but when you look at us the last seven games, we played great defense."
The Saints even held Dallas and quarterback Tony Romo largely in check until giving up a pair of touchdowns when the Cowboys went to a no-huddle offense in the closing minutes. Those scores allowed Dallas to force overtime, but when the Cowboys won the coin toss and took the ball first, the Saints' gave up only one first down before forcing a punt and setting the stage for Drew Brees to drive into winning field-goal range for kicker Garrett Hartley.
Saints first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said it pains him and his players to have yielded such enormous yardage totals this season and wishes he had an explanation.
Spagnuolo added, however, that he can only be proud of how well his unit improved during the second half of the season, which included the first shutout by a Saints defense in 17 years.
In some ways, he said, the defense's performance from late in regulation at Dallas through its successful overtime stand was symbolic of the season.
"It's not that easy to be the team that just got tied to go into overtime to then have them win the coin toss and have to go right back out there and play," Spagnuolo said. "It's a reflection of the character and resolve of those guys."