NEW ORLEANS -- Playing in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii in late January sounds like a perfect ending to a long, grueling season.
But playing in Super Bowl XLVI on the first Sunday in February can be far more enriching and professionally fulfilling for those players aspiring to greatness.
Ask the NFC South-champion New Orleans Saints (12-3), particularly members of Gregg Williams' 24th-ranked defensive unit, which has no starters or reserves on the NFC Pro Bowl squad that will face the AFC squad in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Jan. 29.
Saints strong safety Roman Harper and free safety Malcolm Jenkins were voted second and fourth alternates at safety, meaning they would be invited to play in the annual all-star game if the NFC players in front of them don't play for whatever reason.
Though both would be honored to compete for the NFC if the opportunity presented itself, each has his eyes on a much bigger prize: Playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"We can't control who goes or doesn't go to the Pro Bowl,'' Jenkins said. "All we're worrying about is winning. We go out there and play hard for each other.
"I feel like we have Pro Bowl-caliber players on our team. Whether the rest of the league feels that way, we can't control that. We just continue to focus on our goal and that's to win the Super Bowl. We don't plan on playing in the Pro Bowl anyway. We plan on playing in the Super Bowl. That trumps playing in the Pro Bowl.''
The Saints' quest to win a second Super Bowl in three seasons begins in earnest either on wildcard weekend (Jan. 7-8) or in the divisional round (Jan. 14-15), depending on their final playoff seeding.
They hold the No. 3 seed in the NFC going into Sunday's regular-season finale at noon against the Carolina Panthers (6-9) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. A victory coupled with a loss by the heavily-favored San Francisco 49ers (12-3) at St. Louis (2-13) would catapult the Saints into the No. 2 seed, ensuring a first-round bye and a home game in the divisional round.
If still the No. 3 seed at the close of league business Sunday, the Saints will host either Detroit (10-5) or Atlanta (9-6) in a wildcard game, probably on Jan. 7, two days before the AllState BCS National Championship at the Superdome between No. 1-ranked LSU and second-ranked Alabama.
Regardless the opponent and when the Saints open the playoffs, their "no name'' defense will be ready to play.
"I have been doing this for so long that I would be lying if I told you that didn't bother me,'' Williams said, referring to his players' apparent snub for inclusion on the NFC Pro-Bowl squad. "Our guys play really hard. We have several guys on our team that deserve that.
"I flunked politics and so did they. We are not going to apologize for how we play. The thing that I am most proud about our guys is that we are not out there with 'vote for me' signs. We are not out there campaigning for things. We let the film speak for itself. Our two safeties right now, there are no two other safeties in the league that I would rather coach than them. All I can say is I will use it as motivation. I coach better with a chip on my shoulder and these guys play better with a chip on their shoulder, too."
Harper seemed to be the most likely Saints' defender to make the NFC squad, largely because of his gritty, hard-nosed performance this season. Three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma has missed four games because of a knee injury and 2006 Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith cannot play in this year's Pro Bowl after serving a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy and forfeiting two additional game checks.
"I'm still an up-and-coming player and trying to make a name for myself,'' Jenkins said. "With Roman, I scratch my head every time I think about it. Clearly, you turn on the tape every week and you can see that our defense revolves around him.''
Twice named NFC Defensive Player of the Week this season, Harper leads the Saints in tackles with 109 and sacks with 7.5. Arizona Cardinals' safety Adrian Wilson holds the NFL record for most sacks in one season by a defensive back with 8 back in 2005.
Harper collected the most fan votes by an NFC safety in online voting conducted by fans but finished behind starting safeties Earl Thomas of Seattle and Wilson, reserve safety Dashon Goldson of the 49ers and an undisclosed first alternate at safety in the finalÂ count.
Several of Harper's teammates wondered if recent accusations by opponents that he plays "dirty'' might have hurt his chances to make the NFC squad.
The league fined Harper $22,500 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck ($15,000) and face-masking Titans receiver Damian Williams ($7,500) in Week 14. Harper previously had been fined $15,000 for hitting Carolina receiver Steve Smith after Smith scored a touchdown in Week 5.
"Hypothetically speaking, I would hate to think that some of Roman's personal fouls may have hindered him getting the votes,'' Will Smith said. "I would hope that that didn't play a part in Roman not getting on the team.''
"If we didn't have a true shot at the Super Bowl, I think maybe guys would be offended that they didn't make the Pro Bowl because it's something everybody looks forward to doing,'' Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. "But I think there's a true sense that we can do something special. So guys who thought they would go can accept it more easily.''
Jenkins said he can accept why he, Smith and Vilma didn't make the Pro Bowl, citing his inexperience, the league's disciplinary action against Smith and Vilma's season-long injury problems.
"But, I don't see too many other safeties in the league doing what Roman does as far as making plays in the box,'' Jenkins said. "We feel like Roman got snubbed. It's just a shame.''
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