A DAY AFTER Sean Payton helped Drew Brees break the NFL's single-season passing record, the New Orleans coach wouldn't divulge whether he'd enable his star quarterback to maintain that distinction.

With 5,087 yards passing this season after Monday night's victory over Atlanta, Brees enters the final week of the season 190 yards ahead of New England's Tom Brady. Yet the Saints' regular-season finale might not matter in terms of playoff seeding, meaning the prudent choice for Payton could be to rest Brees for much of Sunday's game against Carolina.

The Patriots, by contrast, need to beat Buffalo to ensure they'll have the top seed in the AFC, and the last time New England played Buffalo, Brady threw for 387 yards.

So it's not out of the realm of possibility that Brady could finish the season with the passing record Brees now holds, particularly if the Saints' quarterback sits out.

"I'm not really aware of the space between the two. I am probably better off not knowing," Payton said yesterday of Brees' and Brady's yardage totals.

Now that New Orleans has clinched the division, the only way the Saints can improve their seeding is with both a win over the Panthers and a San Francisco loss at St. Louis, which is 2-13. If that happened, the Saints would jump to No. 2 and get a first-round bye and a second-round game at home.

Payton already has made one arguably unconventional move to help Brees set the record. He let his star quarterback keep throwing during the final minutes of Monday's 45-16 victory over the Falcons to get the 30 yards he needed to surpass Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 yards. The last pass was an otherwise inconsequential 9-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles.

While Payton exposed himself to criticism for running up the score, he said he was comfortable with his decision.

Noteworthy * 

Defensive lineman Houston Antwine, one of the Patriots' top players in their early years, and his wife, Evelyn, both died this week. Antwine, 72, died Monday in Memphis, Tenn., of heart failure, and his wife died yesterday of lung cancer, the team said. Antwine played from 1961-71 with Patriots before spending 1972 with the Eagles.

* Sales of Green Bay Packers stock have been so brisk since an initial offering 3 weeks ago that the team is making another 30,000 shares available. The team initially offered 250,000 shares for sale starting Dec. 6. But the allotment is nearly gone, even though the shares cost $250 and have virtually no resale value. The offering is scheduled to end Feb. 29 or when all remaining shares are sold. The NFL's only publicly owned team is applying the proceeds toward a $143 million expansion of Lambeau Field. The shares are available at packersowner.com for $250, plus a $25 handling fee per transaction. Buyers gain the privilege of calling themselves NFL owners, though the stock value will not go up and there are no dividends.

In other Packers news, a Feb. 16 trial date was set for linebacker Erik Walden on a disorderly conduct-domestic abuse charge.

* Washington released running back Ryan Torain, who started four games this season but fell behind rookies Roy Helu and Evan Royster on the depth chart. Also, the Redskins promoted receiver Aldrick Robinson from the practice squad.

* Detroit signed running back Joique Bell and released running back Aaron Brown.

* Cincinnati placed wide receiver Andre Caldwell on injured reserve with a hernia and promoted rookie receiver Armon Binns from the practice squad.

* Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said he thinks injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey both have "a shot" to play Sunday at Cleveland.

* Jacksonville signed cornerback Trumaine McBride and promoted defensive end Jammie Kirlew from the practice squad. The team also waived linebacker Mike Lockley.

* Chicago placed quarterback Jay Cutler (thumb) and running back Matt Forte (knee) on injured reserve, meaning they will miss the season finale at Minnesota.