NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are about to close the book on a season that may forever be defined by the word "bounty." They want to do it by avoiding the "losing team" label, even if the playoffs are out of reach.
The Panthers had no such scandal overshadowing their season, only the disappointment of failing to reach expectations that may have been unfairly high after Cam Newton's stellar rookie campaign. Still, Carolina has won three straight and four out of five, offering hope that one productive offseason may be all the Panthers and their talented, dual-threat quarterback need to become contenders again.
So when the Saints (7-8) and Panthers (6-9) meet Sunday, what might otherwise look like an anticlimactic season finale between two teams going nowhere will mean much more to the players and coaches involved.
"You want to go out and play your absolute best and really feel good about our team, the way we were able to finish and the future despite not meeting some of the goals that we had for this season," said Brees, whose season has been about as wildly inconsistent as his team's. "We want to finish strong, and we want to really have something we can build on moving forward. Over the last two weeks we've done that, but we have to complete that trifecta by doing it again this week. This is the most important game of the season."
Brees, who held out until shortly before training camp for a five-year, $100 million extension, has been plagued by a league-high 18 interceptions, while at the same time remaining among the most productive quarterbacks in NFL history.
With one more touchdown pass, Brees will become the first quarterback to throw 40 scoring passes in consecutive seasons. With 4,781 yards passing, Brees is the first player in NFL history with three straight 4,500-yard seasons, and he needs 219 yards - well below his average - to be the first in NFL history with three 5,000-yard seasons.
"Well, let's hope we hit those. Let's hope we win the game. And then we'll reflect once the season is over," Brees said. "In the end, as a quarterback, it's did you win or did you lose, did you go to the playoffs or did you not, did you have a chance at the championship or not? That's what drives you."
For the Saints, the game is expected to be the last under assistant head coach Joe Vitt. He has served in an interim role while Sean Payton has served his season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's investigation into the Saints' cash-for-hits performance pool.
It might even be the last game Vitt coaches in any capacity. While appearing as a witness earlier this month on behalf of players appealing their bounty suspensions, the 58-year-old Vitt said he "could've retired last August."
"I'll make a decision after the season what I'm going to do with my career," Vitt said, according to transcripts of the closed hearing obtained by The Associated Press.
The Saints are expecting Payton to return as coach when his suspension ends following the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 - perhaps earlier if Commissioner Roger Goodell permits it. Payton agreed in principle to a multiyear contract extension Friday, the team confirmed.
Meanwhile, Carolina coach Ron Rivera's future is unclear as he concludes a second straight losing season. A loss would doom him to consecutive 6-10 finishes, but Rivera said he believes the team is headed in the right direction.
"This week we're playing the Saints and then after that we'll just go forward and see what happens," Rivera said, referring to the talk about his job security. "It's crazy because you kind of wonder where it all came from and it never came from (Panthers owner Jerry Richardson) and that's the thing. I'm on the hot seat; at no point was I ever told that."
Certainly, his players haven't given up on him as they look to close out the season.
"Everybody feels like we're playing well, but it's kind of a bittersweet moment, because we feel like we should have been playing like this all year long," Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell said. "We know we have a good coach here. Hopefully he'll come back. We all want him back."
One of Carolina's few early-season wins came in Week 2 over a Saints squad en route to an 0-4 start. The Saints' defense was playing much worse back then, however. New Orleans' defense started so poorly, in fact, that despite substantial improvement it remains on pace to give up more yards than any in NFL history.
The Saints have yielded 6,512 yards, 281 yards short of the record 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, a team on which Vitt served as a third-year assistant.
Vitt concedes the numbers are not flattering, but also said they don't tell the story of how the unit responded to a poor start under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
"You talk to any defensive member of the team and they're proud to be a part of that unit. The coaching staff certainly is," Vitt said. "There has been improvement, there has been (a) shutout. Instead of being the negative part, the all-time leader, whatever that means, we have a chance to be 8-8 and be an improved defense. That's more important - not where we were, but how we finished."