So leaning on crutches, Payton was back on the sideline Sunday in Atlanta, and Saints players said their coach's surprise return provided a lift.
"It was great having him," said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns. "Just his presence. He couldn't wait to get back down there."
Payton watched three games from the press box, going 2-1, since an Oct. 17 sideline collision with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham left the coach with a broken leg and knee injuries. Payton still wears a big brace on his left leg, on which he had surgery.
Payton said he made the decision to return to the sideline early Sunday, two weeks ahead of schedule.
"Really, I just felt like this was an important game," Payton said. "That presence is important. I talked to the doctors this morning."
Ben Montgomery, the NFL's observer at the game, said Payton was told he must remain a few yards away from the field, because of safety concerns.
"He has to stay behind the white box," Montgomery said, referring to the marked area where players and coaches normally stand.
But it was as difficult to keep Payton out of the box as it was to keep him away from the sideline. He dodged traffic as he usually -- but not always -- stood about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Fox Sports reporter and NFL Network contributor Jay Glazer, who first reported the story, said Payton planned to have someone hold his call sheet and also have an individual assigned to protect him from another collision.
"He definitely has a presence, and just seeing him out there is a comfortable feeling," said Saints receiver Marques Colston, who had eight catches for 113 yards. "It is nice just knowing that your head coach is out there."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.