(AP) The New Orleans Saints are closer to getting back their second-highest-paid offensive player as they try to rebound from a first loss in more than two months - and lock down a playoff berth.
Starting left tackle Terron Armstead returned to practice Wednesday, marking his first time in pads since his pectoral injury at Cincinnati in Week 10. The injury cost Armstead three games, including New Orleans' loss last Thursday night in Dallas, when the Cowboys' defensive line consistently pressured quarterback Drew Brees and limited the Saints' ground game to 65 yards - the fewest since Week 2.
''He's a difference maker for sure and big confidence when he's there on the left side,'' Brees said of Armstead, who has been a starter since late in his rookie season in 2013, but who also has been beset by various injuries much of his career.
Armstead, listed as ''limited'' on the club's practice report Wednesday, said his recovery has been ''going pretty well'' and that he might be ready to play Sunday against Tampa Bay.
''Time away, that's never great. You get in a rhythm so much with your guys up front - my technique, my timing - so that will be a learning curve and adjustment,'' Armstead said, adding he at least hopes the rest of his body benefited from recent rest as high-stakes games approach.
''I've been battling injuries for a long time, so definitely hard to find positives in an injury for me,'' Armstead said. ''But just thinking of it ... my body definitely has some things, some bumps and bruises, and I took the time and benefited off of it for sure. But I would much rather have been playing.''
Right guard Larry Warford said Armstead's return to practice was good for morale, even if it's not yet clear when he'll be ready.
''I'm just happy that it seems that he's making progress,'' Warford said. ''He's one of the best, if not the best, left tackle in the league. Unfortunately, he's had injuries hinder him throughout his career.''
The Saints would win the NFC South with one more victory, or a loss by Carolina, who New Orleans plays twice in the final three weeks of the regular season. Whether the Saints remain in contention for one of the coveted top two seeds in the conference and receive a first-round bye, depends on how they respond to their first loss since Week 1.
In New Orleans' locker room, players predicted that the 13-10 loss in Dallas, which halted a 10-game winning streak, was more likely a brief stumble than the beginning of a slump.
''Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war and you learn a lot from something like that,'' Brees said. ''I just think we had a bad day. You turn on the film and it's glaringly obvious where we failed and we have to make sure that doesn't happen again.''
On New Orleans' defense, confidence is surging after a seven-sack, two-takeaway performance in Dallas that also marked the fourth straight game holding an opponent to 17 or fewer points.
Against the Cowboys, the Saints' normally prolific offense was the unit which struggled most. But since offense-minded coach Sean Payton and Brees joined forces in New Orleans in 2006, that side of the ball rarely has stagnated for more than a rare game.
Brees said the opportunity to clinch the NFC South for the second straight year is ''significant,'' and would be a ''first step'' toward more lofty postseason goals. He said the Saints' commanding four-game lead in the division with four games left speaks to the quality of football they played during their winning streak, when they became the only team to beat the Los Angeles Rams and won several other games by wide margins.
''That was a great run. We gained a ton of confidence, a ton of momentum,'' Brees said. ''We had a ton of guys step up and play really well - guys that we're going to need down the stretch.
''We really established an identity for ourselves as an offense and a defense,'' Brees added. ''We know how to play winning football.''
Saints leading receiver Michael Thomas did not practice Wednesday and his ankle was cited as the reason on the club's injury report. However, he was present at practice and the Saints regularly err on the side of resting top-performing veterans when they have soreness, particularly early in the week.
In addition to Armstead, DT David Onyemata (hip) and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder) were listed as limited in practice.
Fullback Zach Line, who left the game in Dallas with a concussion, was able to practice fully.
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