Are the Saints back?
The New Orleans Saints shocked most of the NFL by coming within one win of the Super Bowl last season. It might be just as surprising if they return to the playoffs.
That goal appeared to be getting out of reach until the Saints finally claimed their first win last week, and they can further show their season is turned around Sunday by beating up on the hapless Atlanta Falcons - who are handing the starting quarterback job over to Byron Leftwich.
A magical 2006 season for New Orleans (1-4) following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina brought Super Bowl aspirations for this year. The Saints won the NFC South with a 10-6 record before losing to Chicago in the NFC championship game.
The magic did not carry over as New Orleans followed that improbable run with an 0-4 start, though the team may have regained its 2006 form with a 28-17 win at Seattle last Sunday. Only the 1992 San Diego Chargers were able to overcome an 0-4 start to make the playoffs, but that team failed to reach the Super Bowl.
"We have the opportunity to do something that's never been done before," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who went 25-of-36 for 246 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks. "There's something to be said about that."
Despite the optimism, Saints coach Sean Payton won't even think about making the playoffs. Payton is keeping his focus squarely on the division rival Falcons (1-5), though his team is playing at home and facing one of the NFL's worst offenses.
"I'm not looking at December," Payton said. "I'm looking at this weekend. Our job is to look at Atlanta. It's the only game we can play this weekend. We're not going to play three games this weekend and get back to .500. We only get to play one game ... and that's all we can do."
A big key to the rest of the Saints' season will be having Brees stay on track. Before his outing last week, the Pro Bowler had one touchdown pass and nine interceptions this year. He threw for a career-high 4,118 yards with 26 TDs and 11 picks last year.
The Saints have turned the ball over 13 times this season, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, after having 23 turnovers all of last season, tied for sixth-fewest. However, they only committed one last week, a third-quarter fumble by Reggie Bush - his third of the season after having only two in 2006.
Despite the turnover, the second-year running back is looking to build on a promising performance against the Seahawks as he had a season-high 97 yards on 19 carries and 44 yards on six receptions. He struggled through the first four games with 147 rushing yards and 122 receiving.
The Saints swept the season series with the Falcons last year, including a 23-3 victory on Sept. 25, 2006, in the first game back at the Superdome since Katrina. In the second contest, a 31-13 win in Atlanta, Brees threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
Oddsmakers from Bodog.com have made New Orleans -8.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday's game, the over/under has been set at 42 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 52% of bets for this game have been placed on New Orleans -8.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
New Orleans has not won three in a row over Atlanta since 1992-93.
"We still haven't abandoned what our goal is and that's to get back into the playoffs, and once you get back into the playoffs it doesn't matter what your regular-season record was," Saints center Jeff Faine said.
As bad as New Orleans has been offensively for much of this season, Atlanta has been worse. The Falcons are averaging 13.2 points and 311.3 total yards per game to rank among the worst in the league.
Atlanta could not even reach the red zone on Monday night in a 31-10 loss to the New York Giants.
"Right now you can't be looking at New Orleans or whoever," Falcons wide receiver Joe Horn said after the loss. "It doesn't matter. You have to correct what's going on in your situation. That's what we'll do."
This game marks Horn's return to New Orleans after spending the previous seven seasons there and becoming the second-leading receiver in Saints history, making four Pro Bowls. The 35-year-old Horn should receive a warm reception at the Superdome, having been one of the team's more popular players and becoming a key figure in helping the region recover from Katrina.
Horn signed a four-year, $19 million contract with the Falcons during the offseason but is off to a rough start with his new team, making only 11 receptions for 117 yards and no touchdowns.
Then again, few Falcons have made big contributions offensively. Over the last two weeks, the Falcons have been held to 23 points, 482 yards of offense and 23 first downs. They've scored seven touchdowns through six games, tied for second-fewest in the NFL.
"I'm frustrated. Everybody is frustrated," Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said. "We're going to stay working at it. Our attitude has been OK. ... Eventually it's going to turn."
A change at quarterback may help the Falcons as Petrino has opted to use Leftwich over the struggling Joey Harrington for the remainder of the season.
Harrington has completed only 48.6 percent of his passes for 296 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 48.3 passer rating over the last two games.
Leftwich, signed on Sept. 18 after being released by Jacksonville, has been hampered by a sore right ankle.
"He has a very strong arm," Petrino said. "He throws the ball deep down the field, and he just needs to be able to see it, and I have the confidence that he can put it in there. I think he'll do well."
Leftwich missed 15 games over the previous two seasons with the Jaguars due to a left ankle problem, and in his only appearance for Atlanta, he was 2-of-8 for 28 yards with an interception in an Oct. 7 loss to Tennessee.
By: AP Staff Writers - Email Us
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