Saints Look to March to .500 Against Falcons
New Orleans, Atlanta Meet After Recording Wins
Coming off a bye, the New Orleans Saints finally seem to be getting physically healthy.
It may be more important that they're feeling good mentally.
Looking to avoid another late-season collapse, New Orleans should have some key players back in action for its matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
Since a 1-4 start -- the worst under fourth-year coach Jim Haslett -- the Saints have bounced back to win three of four. They went into the bye after rallying to beat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-14.
"It's a good way to go into the bye week," said kicker John Carney, whose 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left clinched the win in Tampa. "It brings a little momentum, a little optimism. Hope is alive and we're still in the race."
Catching the first-place Carolina Panthers in the NFC South would be tough for the Saints, who are three games back and have already lost the season series with the division leaders.
However, a playoff spot is well within reach as they stand just two games out in the wild-card chase.
New Orleans failed to make the postseason each of the last two years due to poor finishes, losing five of seven to close 2001 and dropping the final four games in 2002.
"We're going to have to play at a high level," Haslett said. "But we really hold our fate in our hands. I think we can get better."
Haslett, who at one time was missing seven defensive starters, has reason to feel optimistic.
Defensive end Darren Howard, the team's sack leader in 2002, will play for the first time since breaking his wrist in the season opener. Starting linebacker Sedrick Hodge should return after missing seven games with a fractured kneecap. Receiver Donte' Stallworth may be back after sitting out two games with a quadriceps injury.
Defensive tackles Jonathan Sullivan and Kenny Smith, both on the injury list two weeks ago, should benefit from the extra time off along with many other banged-up Saints. Twelve players had new injuries after the win over the Bucs, but only one starter -- linebacker Darrin Smith -- is expected to sit out Sunday.
"This is an important game," Haslett said.
"We have our work cut out for us. It is not going to be an easy game. The good thing is that it is at home."
It will be a different home field, however, because the Superdome just replaced the old AstroTurf with a softer, more giving AstroPlay surface.
"It's a lot better, not a little better" said Saints running back Deuce McAllister.
Not that McAllister needs any help. He's rushed for at least 100 yards in six consecutive games, breaking Ricky Williams' team record, and is 129 shy of his second straight 1,000-yard season.
McAllister ran for 116 yards and two TDs four weeks ago in a 45-17 rout of the Falcons.
That defeat was part of Atlanta's seven-game losing streak, but the team finally got Dan Reeves his 200th career coaching victory last week by beating the New York Giants 27-7. Despite the win, Reeves' job status remains in jeopardy.
"When you're 2-7, everybody is expendable," Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking said. "But I'm going to continue to fight for coach. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. If I had to be 2-7, I wouldn't want anyone else watching my back."
Things might be looking up for the Falcons.
Besides having the momentum from last week's win, Atlanta saw Michael Vick return to practice this week for the first time since breaking his leg in the preseason. The Pro Bowl quarterback might dress for this game, though he's unlikely to play. Vick may start next week against Tennessee.
"It's good to see him out there with the helmet on," said Kurt Kittner, who will make his fourth straight start at quarterback. "Mike's a great player. He does a lot of things that no one in the league can do. It'll be exciting to have him back."
Falcons -- 4th place, NFC South. Saints -- 2nd place (tied), NFC South.
Offense -- Doug Johnson, 1,244 passing yards and 6 passing TDs; Warrick Dunn, 496 rushing yards; T.J. Duckett, 5 rushing TDs; Peerless Price, 40 receptions and 468 receiving yards; Alge Crumpler and Jimmy Farris, 2 receiving TDs. Defense -- Ellis Johnson, 4 sacks; Tod McBride and Keion Carpenter, 2 interceptions.
Offense -- Aaron Brooks, 1,837 passing yards and 13 passing TDs; McAllister, 871 rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs; Joe Horn, 49 receptions, 576 receiving yards and 6 receiving TDs. Defense -- Charles Grant, 6 sacks; Ashley Ambrose, 2 interceptions.
Falcons Team Rank:
Rushing Offense -- 113.8 yards per game (14th in NFL); Passing Offense -- 157.7 ypg (29th); Total Offense -- 271.4 ypg (29th). Rushing Defense -- 144.4 ypg (30th); Passing Defense -- 262.9 ypg (32nd); Total Defense -- 407.3 ypg (32nd).
Saints Team Rank:
Rushing Offense -- 117.9 yards per game (13th); Passing Offense -- 202.8 ypg (17th); Total Offense -- 320.7 ypg (18th). Rushing Defense -- 129.4 ypg (28th); Passing Defense -- 189.3 ypg (10th); Total Defense -- 318.8 ypg (18th).
Oct. 19; Saints, 45-17. At Atlanta, Brooks threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, including 133 yards and a TD to Horn, as New Orleans rolled to victory.
Streaks and Notes:
Falcons -- Atlanta's defense is allowing 40 yards per game more than any other NFC team. ... WR Price has at least one catch in 59 straight games. ... RB Dunn, who rushed for 178 yards last week, has averaged 104.7 yards in his last three games against New Orleans. Saints -- QB Brooks is tied with Bobby Hebert and Archie Manning for the most 250-yard passing games in team history with 20. ... Since allowing an average of 29.8 points through the season's first four games, the Saints defense has given up 17.2 per game in the last five. ... New Orleans leads the NFL in third-down conversions at 47.7 percent.
Falcons -- 2-2 on the road; Saints -- 2-2 at home.
Falcons -- DOUBTFUL: DE Travis Hall (neck); S Kevin McCadam (hamstring); QB Vick (leg). QUESTIONABLE: G Kynan Forney (shoulder); S Cory Hall (calf); QB Kittner (groin); CB Kevin Mathis (hamstring); S Gerald McBurrows (knee). PROBABLE: DE Brady Smith (ankle). Saints -- DOUBTFUL: RB James Fenderson (foot). QUESTIONABLE: G LeCharles Bentley (knee); CB Dale Carter (thigh); WR Horn (knee); DE Darren Howard (wrist); G Kendyl Jacox (knee); LB Smith (groin); PROBABLE: WR Stallworth (quadricep); DE Willie Whitehead (knee).
I\'m so pumped about this game. We\'re getting it on the local network here in Birmingham.
We get to see how the team will react going into a game they are favored to win.
The Falcons always give us trouble. Like Tweeky said in a post earlier in the week, I am very afraid of this game.
I hope we pop them in the mouth and then sit on \'em for two hours.
Only wish SuperVick was playing so we could decorate the new turf with him. :D
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