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Jim Henderson: Battling distraction

Monday night provided the latest off-the-field challenge for the Saints: how to gain traction in the midst of another distraction. In this case, the distraction was the news on ESPN that Sean Payton could be a free agent.

The timing of the revelation could hardly have been better for both the network and the coach, could hardly have been worse for the Saints.

ESPN breaks the story Sunday afternoon. It provides a headline and a storyline for the network for 36 hours up to and including a game between struggling sub-.500 football teams -- a game that no longer provoked coast-to-coast interest, a game that might get ugly and require the focus to shift to a provocative sidebar.

For Sean Payton -- the coach-in-exile -- he couldn't lose. The Cowboys would likely fall to the unbeaten Falcons that night, and they did. It wouldn't require much stoking of the embers in Dallas for the Payton-to-the-Cowboys scenario to reignite.

If the Saints were to beat the Eagles a night later, cries for Payton to replace the embattled Andy Reid and deprive archrival Jerry Jones of his services would blister the airwaves, and they will.

If the Saints were to lose to the Eagles as a 2 and 5 football team coming off its worst loss of the season to Denver, it would be unthinkable that the team could fail to bring Payton back at any cost necessary to rescue a sinking ship, forgetting that Payton was the captain of the USS Bounty when it began taking on water.

It's nice to be wanted, lucrative too, if you're Sean Payton. No coach in NFL history has ever been punished to this degree. No coach in NFL history is likely to be rewarded more greatly while he is.

For the Saints' assistant coaches and players who coach and play at Sean Payton's pleasure when -- and if -- he returns, the situation could have been the final psychological blow that sent them to the 2012 canvas for good.

To the credit of all of them, they responded with their best effort of the season against the reeling Philadelphia Eagles. For Michael Vick, time has taken its toll on body, on soul. And each received further battering by the Saints Monday night.

For one night, at least the swagger was back. The stagger was over. And the focus didn't waver.

Players play. Coaches coach. Owners own. They had all been admonished by Sean Payton to "do your job." And they did so while he weighs the prospect of an unprecedented opportunity for where and under what circumstances he might next do his.

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