With 5,087 yards passing this season after Monday night's victory over Atlanta, Brees enters the final week of the season 190 yards ahead of New England's Tom Brady. Yet the Saints' regular-season finale may not matter in terms of playoff seeding, meaning the prudent choice for Payton could be to rest Brees for much of Sunday's game against Carolina.
The Patriots, by contrast, need to beat Buffalo to ensure they'll have the top seed in the AFC, and Brady has proven time and again he can put up a lot of yards in a single game. He had a season-high 517 yards against Miami in Week 1 and threw for 423 against San Diego. The last time New England played Buffalo, Brady threw for 387 yards.
So it's not out of the realm of possibility that Brady could finish the season with the passing record Brees now holds, particularly if the Saints' quarterback sits out.
"I'm not really aware of the space between the two. I am probably better off not knowing," Payton said Tuesday of Brees and Brady's yardage totals.
With the playoffs close, Payton said the Saints' priority must be how to "put ourselves in the best position to play well and put ourselves in an opportunity to win a championship."
"That's not always what is popular," the coach added.
Payton pointed out that he heard criticism of his decision during the 2009 season to rest Brees and other key starters in the regular-season finale against Carolina. The Saints lost that game, finishing a season that had started 13-0 on a three-game skid. No team had ever gone into the playoffs on a losing streak that long and won the Super Bowl, but Payton relished the chance to defy history — and did.
"It was what we needed to do as a team," Payton recalled of his 2009 decision. "You make decisions. They are not always right. You try to make them with the right things to help your team.
"Last night was one of those situations," Payton added, referring to his decision to let Brees throw late in Monday night's game. "This upcoming game will be one of those situations."
Payton has his reasons for being cautious, though. They include bad and relatively fresh memories from the 2010 regular season finale, when then-leading rusher Chris Ivory, emerging tight end Jimmy Graham and starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins all got hurt.
The worst part was that the Saints could not have gained anything in terms of seeding by winning that game because Atlanta also won that day to wrap up the NFC South Division title. The next week, the Saints were bounced from the post-season by Seattle.
"We just have to be smart," Payton said. "We are playing well, with some momentum. Each year is different. We will look at that closely."
Now that New Orleans has clinched the division, this weekend's scenario is similar to last season in that the only way the Saints can improve their seeding is with both a win over the Panthers and a San Francisco loss at St. Louis, which is 2-13. If that happened, the Saints would jump to No. 2 and get a first-round bye and a second-round game at home. That, however, does not appear likely to odds makers, who've made the 49ers 10 1/2-point favourites.
Payton already has made one arguably unconventional move to help Brees set the record. He let his star quarterback keep throwing during the final minutes of Monday night's 45-16 victory over the Falcons to get the 30 yards he needed to surpass Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 yards. The last pass was an otherwise inconsequential 9-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles.
While Payton exposed himself to criticism for running up the score, he said he was comfortable with his decision.
"You go with your gut," Payton said. "I thought it was the right decisions last night. This morning, I thought it was clearly the right decision. I felt overwhelmingly that most people that are involved in this game, and know a little bit about this game, probably felt the same way. The great thing about our game is that you can have an opinion about it."
When Brees came off the field after eclipsing Marino's mark on his last pass of the game, he carried the ball he threw on the history-making completion to Sproles.
Brees then said he wished there was a way to share the ball with his teammates, upon whom he showered credit for helping him succeed.
"I guess we could cut it up and give it to them all," Brees said. "I guess the ball itself is not as important to me as the memory we created, because that is something that will live forever."
The record itself, however, could be gone sooner than later — unless Payton decides it's something worth fighting for come Sunday.