Despite winning its sixth in a row against St. Louis on Sunday, New Orleans (10-3) remained a game behind Atlanta in the NFC South. Even if the Saints sweep their last three, including a victory at Atlanta on Dec. 27, the Falcons will clinch the division title if they beat Seattle (6-7) and Carolina (1-12).
Without a division championship, the Saints would be a No. 5 seed at best in the NFC playoffs, regardless of their record.
"We're not even worried about that," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "We just keep focusing on winning each game and keeping the momentum going. Just get us to the playoffs. We'll worry about the rest later."
After converting only one of eight third downs in a sloppy 34-30 win at Cincinnati a week earlier, they converted 11 of 16 against the Rams, retaking the NFL lead with a 49.7 percent success rate for the year.
After struggling to get a consistent pass rush in recent weeks, they sacked rookie quarterback Sam Bradford three times, pressured him into two interceptions and caused an intentional grounding penalty.
They scored on touchdown drives of 13 and 12 plays the first two times they had the ball while forcing Steven Jackson's fumble on the Rams' first possession. Unlike the past two games, when they blew 17- and 14-point leads and had to rally late in the fourth quarter, they were up by at least 15 the entire second half.
"How we're playing now, it doesn't matter who we're playing or where we're playing," safety Darren Sharper said. "We're peaking at the right time."
The next two weeks will provide a good test for Sharper's theory. New Orleans travels to AFC contender Baltimore on Sunday before playing Atlanta in the Georgia Dome eight days later.
With a win at either place, the Saints would have more ammunition for a potential playoff run on the road. With losses, they might not even make the postseason in the top-heavy NFC, where seven teams have eight or more wins.
"It's a competitive stretch," Payton said. "Clearly, Baltimore is an elite team. It's another real good challenge for us."
The Saints' health has them even more confident. For the first time in Payton's five-year tenure, they have almost no significant injuries in December on either side of the ball. For the first time since September, every key playmaker was available on offense against St. Louis.
The duo combined for 129 yards from scrimmage, easing the loss of rookie Chris Ivory, who tweaked a hamstring after gaining 47 yards on seven carries in the first quarter. Payton said Ivory would be evaluated at practice Wednesday, but the injury did not appear serious.
"People around the league now understand the Saints aren't a soft team," Bush said. "We can play physical, we can play fast, we can play finesse, we can do it all. We're a very talented team that can hurt you in a lot of different ways."
At the same time, they've scored 30 or more points five consecutive times.
"I'm not worried about (the interceptions) but I'm worried about it," Brees said. "I'm not going to go in a shell, but it's something that needs to be fixed."
It's the small-picture details like that the Saints want to concentrate on in the next three weeks. Focusing on their possible low seed in the playoffs would be a waste of time.
"It would be unprecedented to be 13-3 and have to go on the road for the playoffs, but at the same time this team is as battled tested as there is in the league," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "We've been a pretty good road team, so I don't think that enters into our psyche.
"As long as we're in the playoffs, I like our chances."
Notes: Kickoff returner Courtney Roby, who was taken to a local hospital after suffering a neck injury and a concussion against the Rams on Sunday, appears to have no long-term damage. Said Payton: "He has some soreness in his neck, but the news is good. We'll see where he's at this week." Roby was injured during a scramble for the ball after he fumbled a return in the second quarter.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press