There is a very good chance that by the end of week 16 the Saints will be locked into the 5th seed wildcard spot for the playoffs, with no chance of moving higher or lower. Assuming the Falcons beat Seattle this weekend, and the Saints beat the Falcons the next week, there are almost no scenarios in which the Saints would not be the 5th seed, even if the Saints were to lose to the Ravens this Sunday.
We already know that Coach Payton likes to rest his starters before the playoffs when he can, but this situation would present a somewhat different set of consequences. If the Saints rest their starters during week 17 and the Bucs end up winning that game, they almost would be assured of a playoff spot as the 6th seed wildcard. I wonder if that would change Payton's thinking on the issue. Would it make him more or less likely to rest guys? Or would the Bucs' situation not affect his decision at all?
To me, it seems like a no-brainer to rest as many starters as possible, and do nearly everything possible to lose against Tampa Bay if it gets them into the playoffs (short of blatantly throwing the game). Tampa Bay would be assured a lower draft pick, and more importantly, it would keep another cold weather team out of the playoffs. A likely playoff scenario in that case would be Tampa Bay losing on wildcard weekend, which would have the Saints playing Atlanta in the divisional round.
What do you think?
Update: As Mtn-Exile correctly points out below, if the Saints beat the Falcons, and the Saints and Falcons either both lose or both win this weekend, both teams would enter week 17 with the same record. In that case, the Saints would have a chance, however remote, to take the division. The chances of Atlanta losing to Carolina are so remote that I failed to consider that possibility. Ultimately the chance would be there, though, and would make this question academic. There is still a reasonable chance of being locked into the 5th seed. If Atlanta beats Seattle, and the Saints lose to the Ravens and then beat the Falcons, I think they are guaranteed the 5th seed regardless of what happens with the Giants, Eagles, Packers and Bears.