After avoiding what would have been its first 2-5 start with Sean Payton on the sideline, New Orleans will go for a more palatable “first” this Thursday.

First place will be on the line when the Saints (3-4) play at Carolina (3-4-1) thanks to an amazingly poor start by the NFC South.

New Orleans, Carolina, Atlanta (2-6) and Tampa Bay (1-6) are 5-16-1 against teams outside of the division. If they get to .500 for the first time this season, the Saints will earn the added benefit of looking down on the rest of the NFC South.

They realize they are lucky in that regard. All division winners are guaranteed a home game in the first round of the playoffs.

“Fortunately as the division has gone this year we’re right there,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “Next week we have a chance to take over the division. Our goal is to go beyond that, but we’ll take it. We’ll take being in the division scrum right now.”

The NFC South’s struggles are not unprecedented. Seattle won the NFC West with a 7-9 record in 2010, becoming the first NFL playoff team with a losing record other than strike-shortened 1982, when the field was expanded to 16 teams. Those Seahawks then eliminated the Saints in the first round.

Green Bay won the NFC North with an 8-7-1 record last year. Denver (2011) and San Diego (2008) won their divisions at 8-8. All of those teams except for the Packers won their first playoff game.

Still, linebacker Curtis Lofton said the Saints would be getting ahead of themselves if they worried about the division standings this early in the season.

“I don’t think it means anything,” he said. “This is just one game. We still have a lot of games to go after this. As it gets closer to the end, the stakes start to get higher and higher. Our number one goal is to win the division, but if we take the lead by winning this game, it doesn’t mean we win anything. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Although the difference appears significant — the Saints will either have a half-game lead or trail the Panthers by a game-and-a-half after Thursday — Payton played down the immediate significance.

“There’s big picture and small picture,” he said. “We’ve tried to focus on the smallest picture, and that is our own team getting better.”

Injury report

Although they did not practice Monday, the Saints released an injury report as per NFL requirements before Thursday games, and there was encouraging news about center Jonathan Goodwin.

Goodwin, who sat out the Green Bay game with an ankle/knee problem, is listed as being able to practice on a limited basis. He did not practice at all last week, and Tim Lelito started in his place.

Tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught a touchdown pass against the Packers, also was listed as limited (shoulder) along with linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle).

Running backs Khiry Robinson (forearm) and Pierre Thomas (rib/shoulder), fullback Austin Johnson (knee) and linebacker David Hawthorne (hand) were listed as being unable to practice. Hawthorne had a pivotal second-half interception against Green Bay and did not mention being hurt after the game.

Practice altered

The shortened time between the Sunday night game against Green Bay and the Thursday night game at Carolina is forcing Payton to alter his normal practice schedule.

The Saints usually work on their base plan Wednesday, third downs on Thursday and conduct situational work (red zone, dime package, etc.) on Friday.

This time, Payton said they would work on base and third downs Tuesday and do everything else on Wednesday before flying to Charlotte on Wednesday evening.

“You’re out of pads and you’re really into more walk-throughs,” Payton said. “It really becomes more mental as they rest physically.”

Redemption for Brees

Drew Brees took the Saints’ come-from-ahead loss to Detroit hard, particularly the interception he threw that set up the Lions’ winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He labeled it “the worst feeling in sports.”

One week later, he completed all 11 of his passes in the second half as the Saints outscored the Packers 28-7 in the second half to win 44-23 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Strief hardly was surprised.

“Drew is hard on himself because it’s a way for him to take pressure off of other people,” he said. “That’s the kind of guy that he is. He wants that pressure and responsibility. He’s a big boy and he can handle it.”

Strief added outside questions about Brees’ drop in production never affected his teammates.

“In the locker room there was not one guy who was looking at him and saying, what’s wrong with you or what’s the deal?” Strief said. “We know what his preparation is like, how consistent he is. We’ve got a ton of confidence in him, and there’s really not much he can do to make us waver from that confidence we have in him.”