If the season can be compared to a construction plan for the New Orleans Saints, then it's safe to say that Phase I is complete.
The NFC South Division title has been won, and along with that, a home playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has been secured. Now, other goals await, all within grasp.
Namely, the Saints (11-2) currently are the No. 1 seed in the NFC. If they secure the spot, they'll earn a bye week in the playoffs and assure that they won't have to leave New Orleans for an NFC playoff game, only for a trip to Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII, on Feb. 3 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
First, though, the immediate business is to keep winning and make a smooth transition into Phase II, beginning with Monday's game against Carolina (6-7) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
"There are these different goals," Coach Sean Payton said. "Clearly, this is an important game for us. We've been doing a lot of things well, some other things we've got to clean up and get better at. But explaining it, and making sure the players understand the significance of today's format, what the seeding process is like and what means, I think is important."
The veterans need no tutoring on the subject. When the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, they were the top seed in the NFC and beat Arizona 45-14 in the Divisional Playoff game, and Minnesota 31-28 in overtime for the NFC Championship.
"You try to climb," Drew Brees said. "You try to continue to climb. Keep stacking the bricks, so to speak, keep building on what we've already established, what we've already accomplished and yet understanding that each game becomes the most important game, because there's so much at stake. We want to continue to play our best football and be an ascending team heading into the playoffs."
"We recognize it, and that's why there's a great sense of urgency. It's great to be in a position where you control your own destiny. We don't need to be scoreboard-watching. We focus on our stuff and all of it takes care of itself."
Monday, that means a game against Carolina, which has lost five straight. The Saints beat the Panthers three times last season – both regular-season matchups and the Wild Card game in the playoffs.
But it's a division game. And the Panthers still have playoff hopes. So the Saints have no illusion that the task will be simple or easy.
"They're a prideful group," Brees said. "They're very well-coached and their backs are against the wall. We're going to get their best performance and it's 'Monday Night Football' at their place, right?"
"All the reasons for them to play well and all the reasons for us to play well. We've got a lot at stake. In many cases you say the most desperate team wins. We've created the sense of urgency around here that we know what's at stake. We know each and every game each and every snap is that important."
BUSHROD HONORED: Offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod was named winner of the Ed Block Courage Award for the Saints this season. The 12-year veteran and his wife, Jessica, lost their daughter, Jordyn Lynn Bushrod, on Oct. 18, days after she was born.
Bushrod took some leave, returned to the team and has started the last four games at left tackle in place of injured Terron Armstead.
"He's a special teammate, and I'm not speaking on behalf of the team, maybe more so as a head coach," Payton said. "He came here in '07, played then, started for us on the Super Bowl team, was a big part of our team, career moved elsewhere and then here he is back again. And playing for us now.
"All of that being said, the adversity he and his family went through this season is difficult and challenging. And I think, hopefully, he felt that family structure surrounded by his teammates, being here for him, made it a little bit more comforting. I think the world of him and his family, and I'm glad he's with us."