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New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) talk strategy against the Carolina Panthers in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The New Orleans Saints' resurgence has placed them smack-dab in the middle of one of the tightest NFC playoff races in years.

Ten teams are still over .500, seven have eight or more wins and despite the Saints' eight-game winning streak, there are still three teams in reach of the NFC South title.

New Orleans, at 9-4, is on the strong side of the 10 teams vying for six playoff spots, but with so many teams in the mix, no team can afford to slip down the stretch.

"We just have to focus on ourselves," safety Rafael Bush said. "Whatever they do on their own time, how they look at the standings or who they've got as their next opponent, that's their business."

Ignoring the standings can be easier said than done.

A few Saints, like punter Thomas Morstead, have kept track of the standings all season long. Morstead's interest in the rest of the NFL stems partly from being a fan of football itself.

"Me, specifically? I'm paying attention Week 1," punter Thomas Morstead said. "Some people say, 'Don't look ahead, worry about your own game.' I'm capable of doing that and always knowing where I stand and where we stand. Everybody's different."

New Orleans preaches taking the season one game at a time. And at least part of the roster claims to be able to block out the noise.

Getting too wrapped up in all of the potential scenarios — fans can spend endless hours tinkering with possibilities on the playoff simulators of ESPN or the New York Times — can lead a player to look too far ahead.

With that in mind, some players say they pay no attention to all of the talk about the playoffs. 

"I don't," safety Vonn Bell said. "I take it a game at a time. Nothing's ever said and done."

Bell and Morstead take different approaches, but the end goal is the same. 

Morstead likes to know exactly what the Saints have to do to get their best shot at a Super Bowl; Bell says he blocks out the rest of the playoff picture by considering all of it insignificant in the face of the ultimate prize. 

"You just have to stay focused," Bell said. "There's a bigger prize at the end, right?"

With three weeks left in the season, though, avoiding any talk about potential playoff scenarios or the race for the NFC South is harder than ever.

ESPN and the NFL Network are talking about the playoff races all the time, the reporters that walk into the Saints locker room and every other locker room around the league are asking about it, and the players are well aware that the season is winding to a close.

"Anybody in this locker room that tells you they're not looking at them, they're probably lying to you, but we can only control what we can control," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "If we go out and win our remaining three games, we'll be 12-4, it's a great season, and wherever we're ranked, it is what it is."

New Orleans still needs some help in order to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, and gaining the No. 1 seed would take a lot of help.

But in terms of the NFC South, the task is simple.

Win the final three games against the Jets, Falcons and Buccaneers, and New Orleans has its first NFC South title since 2011.

"We're still in control of everything as far as our playoff position goes or the NFC South standings go," left tackle Terron Armstead said. "This is a huge game. The Jets have been in every game, except for last week, so it's going to be a good test."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.