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New Orleans Saints defensive end Alex Okafor (57) reacts to a play against Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first half on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL.

The New Orleans Saints have been there for Alex Okafor.

He wants to make sure he's there for them.

It's been three years since Okafor played in his one and only NFL playoff game.

The Saints defensive end was playing with the Arizona Cardinals at the time when they lost to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers on Jan. 3, 2015.

So Okafor, more than most, is looking forward to the Saints' playoff opener Jan. 13, when they will host either the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks or the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It's a huge opportunity for me," Okafor said. "I'm excited about it. But first and foremost I have to get healthy. I have to get my knee right, which I fully intend to do. I'm just trying to take advantage of this opportunity."

Okafor missed practice Wednesday after hyperextending his left knee in Sunday's loss to the Carolina Panthers in the regular-season finale.

He says the injury isn't too serious.

"The plan is to get me out there (to practice) slowly and partially next week, and hopefully I'll be ready to go for the game," Okafor said. "We have a chance to do something special, and I just want to be a part of it."

Okafor didn't get a chance to be a part of the Saints' playoff run last season. He suffered a torn Achilles in a regular-season game that sidelined him for the rest of the year. So he plans to make sure he's a part of this one.

"I've never been a No. 1 seed. Not many people have been a No. 1 seed," Okafor said. "So whenever you're in this position, you have to take advantage, make sure you're doing your part and I plan on doing that."

Okafor's latest injury caused him to miss his chance to be an honorary captain for the University of Texas on Tuesday night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. His doctor suggested he stay off his feet. So former Longhorns and Saints running back Ricky Williams took his place, much to Okafor's delight.

"Talk about an upgrade," Okafor said with a laugh.

Then Okafor's alma mater went out and upset Georgia 28-21 in the game, adding to what has been a pretty special week for Okafor.

On Wednesday, it was first reported by ESPN that Okafor earned a $400,000 bonus. The incentive was supposed to come when Okafor recorded his fifth sack of the season. He finished with four, but the Saints rewarded him anyway.

"Ever since I got signed here last year, the Saints have always done right by me," Okafor said. "They have gone above and beyond to make me feel included and treat me the right way. I'm just grateful. It's a blessing and I just have to do my part and make sure I give them all I've got."

It was the second time in the past 10 months the Saints showed just how much they value Okafor. In March, the Saints signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal, even though he was recovering from his Achilles injury.

"After you tear an Achilles, I see so many instances where guys hit the free agency market and nobody is willing to give them a chance because they don't know what they'll be the next year or when they'll get them back throughout the season," Okafor said. "After I got hurt last year, the target range (for my return) was training camp. They honored that and believed in me, and we saw that with the contract."

Okafor's return has helped with a defense that is tops in the NFL against the run and tied for fifth in sacks.

"He's a steady presence," Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "He does everything really well. But he doesn't get a lot of the credit and media attention. But if you watch him, he's always hitting the quarterback, always in the backfield, always disrupting things."

Because Okafor recorded at least three sacks this season, a clause in his contract allows him to opt out of the final year of his contract at the end of the season if he so chooses.

But Okafor says he isn't worried about that right now.

"Right now we're just trying to win the Super Bowl," he said. "If we do that, everything else will take care of itself.


Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.