NFC South Rivarly
Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans three years ago, flooding 80 percent of the city and forcing the New Orleans Saints out of their home stadium for the entire 2005 season.
Despite concerns that Hurricane Gustav might pack a similar punch when it hit land early this week, the city - and its rebuilt Superdome - held up just fine.
After evacuating with much of the city in anticipation of the storm, the Saints make their second return to the Superdome in three years Sunday when they open the 2008 season by hosting the NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Oddsmakers from Sportsbook.com have made Saints -3 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 62% of bets for this game have been placed on Saints –3 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, killing nearly 2,000 people, leaving thousands of others homeless and causing over $80 billion in damage - easily the most ever by an Atlantic hurricane.
The Superdome sustained heavy damage in the storm, forcing the Saints to split their home games in 2005 between the Alamodome in San Antonio and LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
With its 110 mph winds, Gustav sparked fear that New Orleans would again bear the brunt of a disastrous storm, but the hurricane weakened and stayed far enough west of the city to spare it from catastrophic damage.
The Saints moved to Indianapolis last week for practice, but announced Tuesday that they'd be back in the Superdome for the opener.
New Orleans city councilman Arnie Fielkow said the Saints' impending return "is just tremendously uplifting news, not only for the residents of New Orleans but for residents of the entire gulf coast. ... I would fully anticipate the Superdome is going to be rocking and rolling."
Saints owner Tom Benson expects the same.
"We will once again showcase to a national audience that the city of New Orleans is made up of resilient people and that we are ready to stand our city back up as quickly as possible, put this storm behind us and move on with our lives," he said.
The Saints did an excellent job of that in 2006, when they returned to the Superdome after going 3-13 during their tumultuous 2005 campaign.
In its first game back, New Orleans beat Atlanta 23-3 in front of more than 68,000 people. The Saints finished with a 10-6 record for their first winning season in four years and advanced to the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history.
That success fueled the team's high expectations for 2007, but the Saints never recovered from an 0-4 start during which they were outscored 119-51. The offense eventually returned to form, ranking sixth in the league with 27.3 points per game over its last 12 contests, but the slow start and defensive struggles forced the team to settle for a 7-9 finish.
Two of the Saints' losses came against the Buccaneers, who went 9-7 and won the division for the third time in six seasons under coach Jon Gruden before losing their wild-card playoff game at home against the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
The Buccaneers hope 38-year-old quarterback Jeff Garcia and an aging defense have enough left in them to get the team back to the postseason in 2008.
The Bucs have allowed the fewest yards in the NFL twice and ranked among the top 10 statistically 10 times in 12 seasons under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. They were second a year ago, and 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks is confident his squad can deliver again.
"We don't say anything. We just continue to make plays," said Brooks, who turned 35 in April and is entering his 14th season. "Pretty soon they have to start using other words to describe you."
Garcia, meanwhile, is just as focused on making plays despite expressing frustration with his contract and the team's flirtation with acquiring Brett Favre in the offseason after Garcia's Pro Bowl 2007 campaign.
"I'm playing the last year of a contract year, and I'm going to make the most of it," Garcia said. "I'm going to do everything I can do to help us win football games."
Drew Brees will be under center for New Orleans, headlining a versatile Saints offense with marquee players at most of the skill positions. Brees, who has passed for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons with the team, has the luxury of throwing to 6-foot-4 receiver Marques Colston, who caught 98 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2007.
In the backfield Reggie Bush is healthy after a knee injury forced him to miss last season's final four games, and Deuce McAllister's comeback from a second knee reconstruction in three seasons got off to a promising start in the preseason.
New Orleans also added four-time Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey in the offseason, further strengthening one of the league's top offenses.
"Realistically, we have an opportunity right here because we have the pieces of the puzzle in place," Brees said. "There are those windows of opportunity for every team and this is a window of opportunity for the New Orleans Saints."
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