Inside slant - U.S.A. Today
While the month of December has been like the Twilight Zone to the Saints the past two seasons, they have no choice but to make the most out of it this year.
With their backs pressed firmly to the wall, the 6-6 Saints may have to win each of their four remaining games to have any shot at making the six-team postseason field in the NFC.
The quest to come all the way back from a horrific 1-4 start begins Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Superdome ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â the site of three of the Saints' final four games.
The Saints have faded badly in December and January games under coach Jim Haslett, dropping four straight in 2001 to fall out of playoff contention after being 7-5. Then, they dropped three in a row last season when all they needed was one win to reach the playoffs after a 9-4 start.
Knowing that his team will be scrutinized moreso this month than in any other, Haslett tried to cut it off at the pass earlier this week after his team's 24-20 win over the Washington Redskins kept them in the race.
"You have to write something; you have to say something," Haslett said. "That's what you get paid to do, so you will bring it up. I don't think that it's an issue because every year is different. Every year at this time it is different. Every team is different every year.
"This time of the year, guys really separate themselves," he said. "Some teams are in and some teams are out. Others are on the brink and some have their hopes up. You know what kind of team you have by whether they play hard and if they're fighting down the stretch. That's something they should do."
The Saints have played well lately, winning five of their last seven after that rugged start. They have even more confidence knowing that they've beaten the Bucs three straight times ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â including a 17-14 win at Raymond James Stadium on November 2.
"I think we just need to continue doing what we have been doing and improve in every area," Haslett said. "Hopefully, this home-field advantage will help us and we can take advantage of it."
After the 5-7 Bucs, the Saints face a final three-game stretch that includes games with the New York Giants (4-8), at the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-9) and back home with the Dallas Cowboys (8-4).
"You look at it now and say (teams) have a losing record, but at the end of the season, they might not have a losing record," Haslett said. "You can't count things out until the season is done.
"We are playing a good football team this week. They are the defending champions. The team has a lot of talent. They are very dangerous."
SERIES HISTORY: 24th meeting. The Saints lead 16-7, having won the last three games in a series that began in 1977. In their last meeting on Nov. 2 in Tampa, the Saints took a 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter and, after the Bucs tied it, drove to the game-winning field goal with eight seconds left.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂRunning back Deuce McAllister has had the three-highest rushing totals of his career during the last three outings in his streak of nine straight 100-yard games. McAllister had 173 yards on Nov. 16 against Atlanta, 184 yards on Nov. 23 at Philadelphia and 165 yards in last week's win at Washington.
With 150 rushing yards against the Bucs on Sunday, McAllister will join Earl Campbell as the only players in NFL history to record four consecutive 150-yard rushing games.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂEven though he caught only two passes for 10 yards (he drew two interference calls and dropped a long pass) in the win over the Redskins, Saints wide receiver Joe Horn expressed remorse for a postgame outburst a week ago.
Horn questioned the way he was used in a 33-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a game in which he caught four passes for 76 yards.
"I had a meeting with (offensive coordinator) Mike McCarthy, and I apologized to him," Horn said. "I shouldn't have called him out and said he wasn't getting me the ball. He called my number. I just didn't get the rock sometimes, but it wasn't Mike's fault."
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂQuarterback Aaron Brooks had touchdown runs of 7 and 3 yards against the Redskins, his first rushing touchdowns since Game 7 of the 2002 season against the San Francisco 49ers.
It was also the first time Brooks has scored twice in a game on the ground since his first start with the Saints against the St. Louis Rams in Game 12 of the 2000 season.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂBackup quarterback Todd Bouman has signed a three-year contract extension with the team through the 2006 season. Bouman and General Manager Mickey Loomis confirmed the deal had been done, but said they would not discuss the matter until after the season ends.
Bouman, 31, was acquired by the Saints from the Minnesota Vikings this past off-season for a sixth-round draft choice. He has played sparingly this season, completing 5 of 9 passes for 62 yards and one touchdown.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂThe Bucs are one of only four teams that the Saints have a winning record against all-time. The others are the Bears (11-10), Colts (5-4) and Texans (1-0).
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂStrong safety Jay Bellamy will make the 100th start of his 10-year NFL career on Sunday against the Bucs.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Number of 100-yard rushing games by Deuce McAllister, which is a club record, since he became the starting halfback in 2002. George Rogers, who played for the Saints from 1981-84, had 16 100-yard games from 1981 to 1984.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think if we can continue to do what we did (against the Redskins) like eliminate penalties, take care of the football, and execute on all three phases, you should have a chance to win them all." ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Saints coach Jim Haslett on his team's chances down the stretch.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Saints were dangerously thin at running back when backups Fred McAfee and James Fenderson left with sprained ankles in the first half of last week's game with the Redskins.
Because Lamar Smith had been signed just four days earlier, he was inactive for the game. That meant the Saints were down to just two healthy backs ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Deuce McAllister and fullback Terrelle Smith ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â in the second half against the Redskins.
With McAfee and Fenderson questionable for Sunday's game with the Bucs, Smith should be ready to play and give McAllister a break if he needs it.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂDT Willie Whitehead aggravated his right knee injury against the Redskins and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with the Bucs after sitting out Wednesday's practice.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂRB Fred McAfee sprained his left ankle on a kickoff return in the first half and didn't play in the second half. He also is questionable for the Bucs.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂRB James Fenderson, who returned after missing three games with a sprained ligament in his left foot, is questionable after spraining his left ankle against the Redskins.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂMLB Cie Grant strained his right calf muscle on the opening kickoff against the Redskins is questionable for the Bucs' game.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂTE Zach Hilton injured his left knee in the win over the Redskins and is questionable for Sunday.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂLCB Dale Carter was inactive for Sunday's game because of a strained right quadriceps muscle and is questionable. He practiced with the scout squad Wednesday.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂWR/KR Michael Lewis did not play against the Redskins because of a sprained left ankle. He is listed as questionable, but was able to practice Wednesday.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂLG Kendyl Jacox is expected to miss another week with an injury to his right knee that required arthroscopic surgery. Jacox, who is officially listed as doubtful, did not practice Wednesday.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂWR Donte Stallworth missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle and is questionable for the Bucs even though he returned to practice on Wednesday and worked with the scout squad.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂLCB Ashley Ambrose started Sunday's game in place of Dale Carter and will do so against the Bucs if Carter can't go.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂMLB Darrin Smith, who returned last week from a groin injury, returned to the lineup and started in the middle after filling in at strong side 'backer for Sedrick Hodge for seven games.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂCB Keyuo Craver and RB Fred McAfee returned kicks on Sunday in the absence of WR/KR Michael Lewis. Craver returned punts and added kickoff duties when McAfee left the game in the first half with a sprained ankle.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂLG Montrae Holland, the Saints' fourth-round draft pick this season, will start again on Sunday if Kendyl Jacox can't play.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂTE David Sloan, a nine-year veteran, was signed by the Saints on Wednesday to provide some depth at the position. Starter Ernie Conwell is on injured reserve and Zach Hilton sprained his left knee on Sunday against the Redskins, leaving the Saints with only Boo Williams and Walter Rasby.
Sloan started 14 games for the Saints last season, but was waived on the final cut this summer.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€ÂDT Henry Ford, who played in only four games, was released to make room for Sloan on the 53-man roster.
GAME PLAN: With the exception of the running game, the Saints' offense has been up and down this season. So they'll need to be more consistency this week against the Bucs. The key will be in their power game, which they've used to secure three consecutive wins over Tampa Bay. Deuce McAllister has posted two 100-yard games and a 99-yard effort in the last three games with the Bucs, so getting the most out of him will be vital to their success.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Saints left tackle Wayne Gandy vs. Bucs right defensive end Simeon Rice. Dating to last season, Rice has had great success against the Saints, getting three sacks in their second meeting last season and also getting one in their earlier matchup this season. So taking care of Aaron Brooks' back side against Rice, who is tied for the league lead with 12 sacks, will be a huge priority for Gandy.
INJURY IMPACT: The Saints had all kinds of injuries on offense and defense earlier this season, but they were hit hard on special teams in their win over the Redskins. They were down to their fourth return man in Keyuo Craver because Michael Lewis, Donte Stallworth and Fred McAfee were all injured. In addition, several of their starters had to be pressed into action on the return units and cover teams. If Lewis can return this week, he'll at least lighten the load for other players in the return game and on cover teams.
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