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BillyCarpenter1 10-21-2003 08:40 AM



Under Coach Jim Haslett, New Orleans often has followed its best performances with some of its worst. After its demolition of Atlanta, which Saints team will show up this Sunday against NFC South-leading Carolina?

Tuesday October 21, 2003

By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

The Saints have been here before.

They have soared one week, only to nose dive the next.

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They've put it all together for one brilliant Sunday afternoon, then seen it all unravel a week later.

During Jim Haslett's four-year tenure, the Saints have shown they can play well enough to beat the league's best teams and bad enough to lose to the worst. On any given Sunday, it's impossible to know which Saints team will show up.

Perhaps that's why Haslett and Saints players had their feet rooted firmly to terra firma Monday, one day after a 45-17 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons.

"I still think there is a lot of room for improvement," Haslett said. "Execution-wise we played fairly well. We did all the little things right. But we're not where we want to be yet. Everybody knows it. We're still 3-4."

That level-headed philosophy served the Saints well last week. Privately, Haslett was concerned about his team's mental focus for the Falcons. Sandwiched between a home win against the Bears and this Sunday's rematch with NFC South division-leading Carolina, Atlanta looked like the classic "trap" opponent.

Haslett stressed the importance of playing with intensity and consistency during a team meeting at the team hotel Saturday night. The Saints responded with a breakout effort.

The offense established season-high marks in seven categories: points (45), touchdowns (six), total yards (507), first downs (27), rushing yards (165), passing yards (342) and third-down conversions (10-16, 63 percent).

The defense held its third consecutive opponent to less than 20 points and did not allow a third-down conversion after the first quarter.

"We feel like the team is starting to come together," Haslett said. "We struggled early, but we're starting to get some players coming back. With Carolina and Tampa coming up the next couple of weeks, we wanted to make sure that we were in striking distance. Our players were really focused in on (the Falcons) game."

It was indeed a breakout performance. But that hasn't always been a good thing for the Saints in recent seasons.

Under Haslett, the Saints often have followed their best performances with some of their worst. Signature road wins at St. Louis in the 2000 and 2001 seasons were followed by home losses to Denver and the New York Jets, respectively.

Quarterback Aaron Brooks' play has mirrored that of the Saints.

In his 46 starts, Brooks has had six games with an efficiency rating of 110 or higher. But he typically has followed his breakout games with sub-par performances. In the games after Brooks' previous five best performances, his combined passer efficiency rating is 60.6 and the Saints have lost all five games.

Haslett, though, said Brooks has matured past such swings in performance. He's seen evidence of Brooks' development this season. Sunday was Brooks' fourth game of the season without an interception. His four interceptions are tied with Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck for the fewest in the NFC.

"Aaron is a good quarterback," Haslett said. "He is going to be one of the best quarterbacks that this city has ever seen. He still has a ways to go. I know that some people aren't enamored with him smiling sometimes. You have to be around him. You have to know the guy. He was in here last Tuesday on his only day off from six in the morning until six at night studying. Our players voted him team captain at the beginning of the year. All of that says a lot to me. . . .

Haslett added: "I think he has grown up a lot. I said when the season started that I thought he made great strides during the offseason. I think he will continue to get better and better as we go."

Brooks brandished that added maturity after his career performance in Sunday's blowout. He deflected praise to his teammates and kept his focus squarely on the task at hand.

"It was a great feeling," Brooks said. "I'm not as excited as other players or other people are for this team. . . . We have to understand that we have to continue to stay focused and play together until we get .500 and above. We are a playoff-caliber team, we just haven't been showing it."

Thanks to their back-to-back wins, the Saints have rallied themselves into position to become a factor in the NFC South race. Their next two opponents, Carolina (5-1) and Tampa Bay (3-3), directly are ahead of them in the standings.

"This was a huge game, and so are the next two," tight end Ernie Conwell said after Sunday's game. "We've got some games that are lined up right now that really are going to end up defining our season for us."

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rich006 10-21-2003 10:08 AM

Nice to hear Haslett say those things about Brooks. I\'ve had my doubts, but if Haz is right and AB can stabilize the offense (thereby stabilizing the entire team), the Saints might actually be able to play well several weeks in a row. If they can consistently execute anything like the way they did last Sunday, this is going to be a good year.

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