NEW ORLEANS (AP) -The casual fan may be inclined to snicker when a pair of 6-7 teams talk about the ``playoff atmosphere'' they expect to encounter in the Louisiana Superdome.
Yet, this is the reality in the NFC right now: The Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints are among a handful of mediocre squads that could thrust themselves into the playoffs by performing well during their last three regular-season games.
``It's definitely going to be of that caliber, where guys are going to be fighting hard, because right now, no one has any space to give up here,'' Saints fullback Mike Karney said. ``We haven't been consistent at times and we know that ... but we're in a great position where we're able to possibly get into the playoffs if we win out, so that's what we've got to do.''
New Orleans and Arizona both trail the Minnesota Vikings (7-6) by one game for the final wild-card spot in the conference. The team that triumphs in the Superdome on Sunday will remain at least that close heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
Whoever comes up short must confront the consequences of missed opportunities that put each of them in this precarious position to begin with.
The Saints are 2-4 at home, but easily could have been 4-2. New Orleans missed two field goals and threw a late interception in a 16-13 home loss to Carolina. Even worse may have been the Saints' botched reverse two weeks ago in a 27-23 loss to Tampa Bay. A lost fumble on the play set up the Bucs' last-minute, game-winning TD.
The Cardinals won't soon forget their 37-31 upset loss at home against struggling San Francisco, or their 21-19 loss at Washington, when a potential game-tying 2-point conversion and game-winning 55-yard field goal try both failed in the last half-minute.
Still, the Cardinals say they're headed in the right direction under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt. They have won three of their last five and expect to improve down the stretch.
at Coach has been doing.''
Arizona appeared to regress in Seattle last Sunday, however, as Warner threw five interceptions and was sacked five times in a 42-21 loss.
Whisenhunt said unsatisfactory pass-blocking had something to do with that, as did injuries to key receivers. Anquan Boldin (toe) didn't play. Larry Fitzgerald played, but was hampered by a groin pull that was still bothering him this week.
``One of Kurt's strengths as a quarterback is his ability to anticipate throws, his ability to see the field, make quick decisions and put the ball in tight windows, and that's effective when you have the same receivers over a period of time that you're working with and you have a feel for them, much like the Saints quarterback and their receivers,'' Whisenhunt said. ``But when you're constantly forced by injury to change receivers out, you're working with different guys, that feel and timing can be off a little bit and that can lead to inconsistencies.''
Whisenhunt hoped to have both Boldin and Fitzgerald in uniform against New Orleans.
New Orleans' Drew Brees has looked more like the league-leading passer he was last year since the Saints clawed out of their 0-4 hole by winning six of their last nine games.
With the help of rejuvenated veteran receiver David Patten and steady second-year wideout Marques Colston, Brees has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 3,504 yards and 23 TDs.
The Saints would appear to be substantially weakened in their running game. Deuce McAllister has been out for the season since Week 3, while Reggie Bush missed his first game last Monday night in Atlanta with a partially torn left knee ligament which may sideline him for the rest of the season.
Yet New Orleans had its best rushing performance of the season against the Falcons, gaining 145 yards behind third-stringer-turned-starter Aaron Stecker and undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas.
Stecker and Thomas both averaged 5 yards or better per carry as Stecker became the Saints' first 100-yard rusher this season.
``It's easy when you've got guys up front blocking the way they do,'' said Stecker, a backup for most of his eight NFL seasons. ``Last week was a group effort. Wide receivers, tight ends, the fullback and the whole offensive line were blocking their butts off and it was kind of easy for me.''

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