NFL seasons change, and so do circumstances.
In Week 17 of the regular season last year, the New Orleans Saints were 13-2 and had secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
With no positioning gained by a victory over Carolina in the regular-season finale, quarterback Drew Brees sat. And so did running back Alvin Kamara. And so did right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, and left tackle Terron Armstead. And if a starter didn't sit, he likely didn't make much more than a token appearance as the Saints prepared for their bye week in the playoffs prior to their divisional round game.
In a 33-14 loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints posted the kind of result that was befitting the occasion.
This year, the Saints are 12-3 entering the regular-season finale on Sunday against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. New Orleans will land in Charlotte, N.C., as the No. 3 seed, but before the day ends, it could rise to the No. 1 or 2 seed and claim a playoff bye.
New Orleans doesn't have to win in order to move up to the 2 seed, but the Saints aren't interested in taking that chance.
"We're full speed ahead winning this game," Coach Sean Payton said. "In order for us, when you go through the different situations or scenarios, there's ones that exist where you could be the 1 (seed), the 2 or certainly be the 3. That's significant relative to the opportunity to possibly have a bye and not have to play the first round. So we're treating it much differently than maybe a year ago, where we kind of knew where we were."
The Saints won't be lower than the 3 seed. They're assured of hosting at least one playoff opponent, and it could be a Wild Card game. But before any of that is decided, New Orleans very much is focused on winning against the Panthers.
"You always make those (playing time) decisions based upon kind of where you are and the need for rest maybe for some guys, if you have the ability to," Brees said. "The bottom line is, right now we've got to win to position ourselves in the best way possible. There's an element that we control and then there's an element that we don't control.
"But the bottom line is we still want the mind-set to be that we're playing our best football heading into the playoffs. And so, this is all hands on deck. This is play our best game, play our best football, see how everything else shakes out and then we'll see where we're at."
Where they'll be Sunday is at Bank of America, fully attentive on a 5-10 opponent that has lost its last seven games, while allowing 32 points per game during that stretch.
The Saints remember last year's finale, and don't want to experience a repeat.
"I feel like, as you could see, we didn't come out to play," defensive back P.J. Williams said. "We weren't ready. We were just ready to get to the playoffs, and stuff like that. This year, we're much more locked in and ready to go and want to make sure we put our best foot forward this week.
"We weren't ready to play last year, and we didn't play good at all. It was a bad game for us and that's not going to be the case this year."