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John DeShazier: For Saints, mission just partly accomplished

Check out the division action between the Saints and Falcons in Week 16.

The mission partially has been accomplished.

The New Orleans Saints (11-4) secured a playoff berth, courtesy of Sunday's 23-13 victory over Atlanta in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a win that was New Orleans' 11th in 13 games after starting the season 0-2.

But that's not the goal that New Orleans entered this season with as the primary mark. That objective – winning the NFC South Division title – remains in play, and can be accomplished with a regular-season ending victory over the Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla.

The Saints also can win the division crown via a Carolina loss to the Falcons, or if the Saints and Panthers both finish their respective games Sunday in a tie. But New Orleans' preference is simple: Win, take the title, and land the home playoff game that goes along with being a division champ.

"I think at the end of the day, when you win your division, especially in this league, it kind of puts you exactly where you want to be, right in the thick of things in the playoff race," defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said Tuesday. "That's been our goal from the jump, (and) obviously we still have something to take care of this week, with Tampa. Guys are locked in, guys are ready and we're looking forward to the challenge."

The Saints have made their move, from three consecutive 7-9 seasons to the brink of winning the NFC South, with an infusion of youth and the ability to overcome injuries that, in previous years, might have been backbreakers.

"It's a young team," Coach Sean Payton said, "(and) I also think we've been banged up and so, there's been a lot of backup players – guys that maybe didn't start the season as starters, that are a part of this. You can go position by position.

"You can start with the whole (defensive tackle) Nick Fairley situation," Payton said, before listing the Saints' injured players. Fairley, who had a career-high 6.5 sacks last season, was diagnosed with a heart ailment this offseason, and at least one doctor recommended that he retire. He has been on the Reserve/Non-Football Illness list all season.

"You go with the Sam linebacker, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone. You can talk about (cornerback) Delvin Breaux, you can talk about (safety) Kenny Vaccaro, you can talk about (fullback) John Kuhn, you can talk about (right tackle) Zach Strief. (Tight end) Coby Fleener. A lot of guys started off the season in one position but have been able to step in and fill in. That's been rewarding. Over at defensive end, (Alex) Okafor was playing one of his better seasons, I think."

Those nine players either projected as starters or actually started games this season (Breaux and Fairley never took a regular-season snap), and all are on the Reserve/Injured or Reserve/Non-Football Illness list. Three more on injured reserve – linebacker Nate Stupar, running back Daniel Lasco and defensive lineman Mitchell Loewen, were rotational players, special team contributors, or both.

Payton said recent draft classes have allowed the Saints to withstand the substantial losses.

"Honestly, I think we drafted well in the last year-and-a-half," he said. "We struggled for a period there, and paid for it with a lot of mistakes. And we've gotten that changed, fortunately."

Among the crop of youngsters playing pivotal roles is rookie safety Marcus Williams, a second-round pick and opening-game starter. Williams has two interceptions, five passes defensed and 64 tackles.

While not receiving accolades and attention on the same level as fellow rookies Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara, who project as top contenders for Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year, respectively, Williams has been more than solid.

"He's a guy that we targeted in the first round, right around the latter part of the round," Payton said. "We felt we needed some play-making ability on the back end, we also felt like we needed somebody that had real good football intelligence. I think that with he and Vonn (Bell) back there, we have a good combination of both."

BY GEORGE, HE'S GOT IT: Defensive end George Johnson quickly has made an impact for the Saints, with 2.5 sacks in two games.

"He's been great. He's been special," said Rankins, who noted Johnson's quick ability to adapt to the Saints' defensive system, which has allowed Johnson to play fast.

"It's good to have him," Payton said. "He's gotten some sack production. He's been part of a group, I think you've seen some pass rush – which is exciting – and provided some depth in there."

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