NEW ORLEANS (AP) -The New Orleans Saints offer the perfect example why 0-4 starts are so tough to overcome, and why only one team has done so to make the NFL playoffs.
The Saints (7-7) have won seven of their last 10 games, including their last two. Yet, even if they beat the Philadelphia Eagles at home this Sunday and win at Chicago a week later to finish 9-7, they still need help in the form of one loss by Minnesota (8-6) or two by the New York Giants (9-5).
It's been a tense season for a New Orleans squad that was supposed to be a shoo-in for the playoffs after going to the NFC title game a year ago. Quarterback Drew Brees prefers to focus on the resilience his team demonstrated when it might have been easier to pack it in and wait until next year.
``We have gained a little bit of an edge going through even the last two weeks,'' Brees said. ``You know, it is like another week of a playoff-type atmosphere. If we can pull this one out and we can pull the next one out, we are in a situation where we are (potentially) in the playoffs, but in our minds we have already played four playoff games. I think the preparation becomes even easier.''
Maybe so. But first, they likely have to beat the Eagles (6-8) to stay alive, and Philadelphia demonstrated in Dallas last week that it's no pushover.
``They beat Dallas last week and almost beat New England (three weeks ago), so we have a lot of respect for who we're playing,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ``We know the type of team they are and the tradition that they've created. They really have been the most dominant team in the NFC over the past five or six years.''
The 1992 San Diego Chargers are the only NFL team to begin 0-4 and advance to the playoffs. So on some level, it's impressive the Saints haven't been eliminated from contention yet, while teams such as Philadelphia are out of the playoffs already.
The Eagles have been hindered by key injuries, including to quarterback Donovan McNabb, who sat out a couple of midseason games with a sprained ankle and jammed thumb before returning in a three-point loss to the Giants.
He played inspired football against Dallas, passing for 203 yards and scrambling for 53 more in a 10-6 win.
``Donovan, he proved (in Dallas) that he can move a lot better than he was able to move in the beginning of the season in the pocket,'' Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said. ``He got a lot of rushing yards in the pass game as well. So, him having that mobility and being able to elude the rush, it's big for us. His confidence in his leg has come back a little bit, as well. So, that helps the team tremendously that the defense is going to have to account for him having the ability to run the ball now.''
McNabb appears to have ample motivation.
Despite network TV reports, McNabb said this week he plans to return to the Eagles and wants to go into the offseason with a sense that the team is improving, not falling apart.
``It does carry over,'' McNabb said of finishing well, recalling a late-season winning streak at the end his rookie year. ``It really helped us out in so many ways, especially the younger guys that we had who were being asked to move into the starting role the next year. We had guys knowing what it took and how it felt to win those particular games.''
The Saints have a roster full of guys who learned last season how it felt to go deep into the playoffs. They even have a veteran running back in Aaron Stecker who knows what it's like to win a Super Bowl, which he did with Tampa Bay in the 2003 game.
Stecker has thrived as the Saints have begun a last desperate push, rushing for a combined 195 yards during New Orleans' past two victories.
Should Reggie Bush make a hoped-for but unlikely early return from his torn left knee ligament (Payton said it will be a game-time decision), Stecker will continue to get his share of carries.
Meanwhile, Brees is coming off two of his better games of the season, during which he's thrown for 643 yards and five touchdowns. He's been helped by Marques Colston, who has 306 yards receiving and three TDs in his last two games.
``Drew is definitely in a great rhythm right now,'' Colston said. ``He's been putting the ball all over the field with accuracy and giving us all a chance to make plays.''

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