ATLANTA (AP) — Sean Payton was in no mood to talk about his future.
When someone asked Sunday if he expects to return next season as coach of the New Orleans Saints, Payton snapped, "Next question."
But as the Saints closed out a third straight losing season with a 38-32 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, there was little doubt that Payton's status was the big issue heading into the offseason.
NFL.com reported before the season finale that Payton might be in line to take over the Los Angeles Rams, who are seeking a replacement for Jeff Fisher.
Payton was once the toast of New Orleans, posting a record of 62-34 over his first six years with the team, including four playoff appearances and the franchise's lone Super Bowl title.
Since being suspended for a year in a bounties scandal, Payton is 32-32 with a single playoff appearance in 2013. The last three seasons all ended with a 7-9 mark.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who put up his fifth season with 5,000 yards passing and also set an NFL record for completions in a year, said he "has no reason to believe" Payton won't be back.
"I thought we had a better team than what our record ended up being," said Brees, who was 29 of 50 for 350 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the Falcons.
Zach Strief said speculation about Payton's future was not surprising.
"We're 7-9. It just comes with the territory," the offensive tackle said. "I think Sean Payton will be here. He's the best coach that we'll have."
The Saints had won two straight games and hoped to finish with a flourish, but they were blitzed in the first half by the league's highest-scoring team.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons scored touchdowns on all five of their possessions, building a commanding 35-13 lead at the break.
The Saints staged a furious rally in the final period, scoring three touchdowns and giving themselves a chance by recovering an onside kid. But a second onside kick with less than a minute to go was pounced on by the Falcons, who ran out the clock.
"We obviously had trouble getting off the field in the first half," Payton said. "We got whooped in a lot of areas. I did think we finished toward the end there, and that was encouraging."
The Saints were fighting uphill right from the start after losing their first three games, but their frustrating season was best epitomized by an improbable loss to Denver when they were 4-4 and still in the playoff mix. New Orleans had a potential game-winning extra point blocked and returned for a two-point conversion that gave the Broncos a 25-23 victory .
"There were some tough losses," Payton said. "We had a chance to win some of those close games, and generally the teams that get into this (playoff) field have usually won more than their fair share of those games decided by seven points or less."
The Saints' record in those games — 5-7.
"We talk about that number a lot because so many of them are inside of a touchdown," Payton said. "I feel like we had opportunities and we didn't do a good enough job."
Now the question is: Will he get a chance to turn things around next season?
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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Posted on Mon, January 2, 2017
by By PAUL NEWBERRY AP Sports Writer