Sunday Night Prime Time

The New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks were expected to be contenders for the NFC title this season, but neither has looked particularly impressive lately.

The Saints will be trying for their first victory Sunday night when they face a Seahawks squad that suffered its first regular season shutout in seven years last week.

The Saints reached the NFC title game last season and returned most of their key players from that team this year. However, they lost their first three games by a combined 103-38 and dropped to 0-4 with last weekend's 16-13 loss to Carolina.

New Orleans is off to its worst start since 1996, when it opened 0-5.

"We talked about the expectations all the time and how everybody was ready to embrace the expectations," linebacker Scott Fujita said. "For whatever reason, we haven't responded well to that at all. It's just been kind of a meltdown."

The Seahawks (3-2), meanwhile, got off to a 3-1 start but lost 21-0 to Pittsburgh on Sunday, their first regular season shutout since a 20-0 defeat to Miami in 2000. Seattle, which had managed at least 20 points in its first four games, was outgained 342-144.

Still, the Seahawks are tied with Arizona for first place in the NFC West and have home games against New Orleans and the 0-5 St. Louis Rams before their bye week. Seattle doesn't play a team that currently has a winning record until its 13th game, when it faces Arizona.

Oddsmakers from SBG Global have made Seattle -6.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday Night's game, the over/under has been set at 42.5 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 64% of bets for this game have been placed on Seattle -6.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

The road for the Saints is much more difficult - only the 1992 San Diego Chargers have fought back from an 0-4 start to reach the postseason since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff system in 1990.

Sunday's loss to the Panthers was especially demoralizing for New Orleans. The Saints outgained Carolina 341-243 and led in time of possession by more than 10 minutes.

However, kicker Olindo Mare, playing through a sore groin, had a 20-yard field goal blocked early in the fourth quarter and missed a go-ahead 54-yarder shortly before the 2-minute warning. Drew Brees was 29-of-47 for 252 yards but threw two interceptions, and the Saints were penalized seven times, including a call on left tackle Jammal Brown for being lined up improperly that negated a touchdown. The Saints ended up with only a field goal on the possession.

"If we continue to make the dumb mistakes, drop as many passes, penalize ourselves on big plays, not take advantage of our field position, then it's hard for the result to change," said the Saints' Sean Payton, last season's NFL Coach of the Year. "There's a lot of blame to go around here and it's not just the kicker. There are a handful of positions that we need to evaluate closely and make sure we're playing the right guys."

Mike Karney had the Saints' only touchdown on a short run, although the offense did show signs of life against a tough Panthers defense. Reggie Bush, in his first game as New Orleans' primary running back after Deuce McAllister was lost for the season with a knee injury, picked up 119 total yards, including a season-high 67 rushing.

Bush, though, is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and Brees, the NFC Pro Bowl starter last February, has one TD pass this season to go along with nine interceptions. Mare is 3-of-7 on field goals, although three of his four misses were from beyond 30 yards.

"We've got to be able to correct these mistakes," Payton said. "Now if that means playing some other guys a little bit more on either side of the ball or on special teams, then so be it."

The Seahawks also have plenty of concerns after Sunday's demoralizing defeat, though Seattle coach Mike Holmgren sounded more optimistic.

"This I know: We'll bounce back," Holmgren said. "It's OK. We'll bounce back and keep the thing going."

Seattle was shut out Sunday largely because of Pittsburgh's offense. After holding the ball for 9 minutes, 27 seconds in the first quarter, the Seahawks had possession for only about 9 1/2 minutes the rest of the game, including a mere 5:07 in the second half as the Steelers dominated the ball.

"I always wondered what the best defense was that could face us," running back Shaun Alexander said. "It was a good offense."

Alexander, who has played the last four games with a cast over his sprained left wrist, gained just 25 yards on 11 carries - his worst production since picking up 18 yards on 11 rushes Nov. 17, 2002 against Denver. He has just 378 yards rushing through five games, his fewest at this point in a year since that '02 season - his first as Seattle's feature back.

Holmgren said that backup running back Maurice Morris will start to become more involved in the offense.

"Mo practices hard. Mo's going to get some more carries," the coach said.

The Seahawks will also be scrambling to fill some holes in their lineup this week. Receiver Deion Branch sprained his right foot in the second quarter against the Steelers and Holmgren said he will miss two games.

Fullback Mack Strong abruptly retired Monday after learning that a herniated disk in his neck is pinching his spinal cord. Leonard Weaver, an undrafted free agent and former tight end at Carson-Newman, will step in as the new lead blocker for Alexander.

"We've got to get it going ... challenge the players, challenge the coaches, challenge myself," Holmgren said.

By: Staci Richards - - Email Us

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