NFL: Don’t forget about the Saints
AP Pro Football Writer
Praise is flying toward the Falcons and Eagles. AFC East powers in New York and New England are drawing headlines. Does anyone remember the Saints?
Yeah, those Who Dats from New Orleans. All the Saints did was win the Super Bowl in February, yet because they haven’t set the NFL afire this season, it sure seems like they’re being ignored.
All the Saints are is 6-3, in the mix for the NFC South championship or a wild-card playoff berth. Their defense is improved and they’re beginning to get healthy coming off a bye and heading into Sunday’s home game against Seattle.
“We’ll just keep flying under the radar, keep just winning games however we can and let the chips fall where they may at the end,” star quarterback Drew Brees said. “Everybody can talk about whoever they want as being maybe the favorite. There’s going to be plenty of speculation, but we plan on being there.”
It wouldn’t be a shock. New Orleans has played most of the schedule without its top two running backs, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. It’s also had injuries in the secondary, but Darren Sharper is back and Tracy Porter is getting healthier.
In Seattle (5-4), the Saints get an opponent that leads its division, the weak NFC West, and ranks 30th in offense and 27th in defense. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has two broken bones in his left wrist, but the right-hander expects to play at the Louisiana Superdome.
“They’re still the world champions and they’re the world champions until the next one is crowned,” Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. “I don’t think people realize that. It doesn’t matter if you beat them in the regular season. They’re a team that is used to making the playoffs and know how to win. This game is definitely big for both teams to get a win, especially an NFC opponent.”
The Saints expect to play sharply in the dome, and everywhere else the rest of the way.
“We haven’t played as well in the first half of the season as we wanted to at times, but I feel like we are starting to hit our stride,” Brees said. “I feel like we’re getting a lot of guys healthy and this is when you want to be playing your best football.”
COLTS (6-3) at PATRIOTS (7-2)
The annual showdown, even though they don’t play in the same division.
In the last decade, Indy has the most regular-season wins, 115. New England has the most overall, 133, counting playoffs and Super Bowls.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is scheming like a mad scientist to thwart the prolific Peyton Manning, who already is somewhat hampered by injuries to key teammates.
This one might be decided by whether the Colts, particularly DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, can pressure Tom Brady.
Brady has won 25 consecutive home games as a starter, tying him with Brett Favre for the league record.
PACKERS (6-2) at VIKINGS (3-6)
Not too many screaming headlines leading up to the fourth matchup for Favre against the Pack. Minnesota’s demise and all its off-field issues, plus the separation in the standings between these teams, has quieted the vitriol from the fan bases.
The Packers and Vikings have headed in different directions not just in their records, but in player availability. Green Bay is getting healthy while Minnesota keeps losing key guys or is forced to use banged-up players.
“We can’t be concerned about anything else but winning the football game,” Favre said.
GIANTS (6-3) at EAGLES (6-3)
Control of the NFC East and potentially the entire conference is at stake in this night affair.
Nobody has been more impressive the last two weeks than Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and the Eagles. Vick, who hasn’t turned over the ball all season, looked like he was playing a video game Monday night while accounting for six touchdowns in the rout of Washington. Jackson has become the best deep threat in football.
The Giants, of course, have a much better defense than does Washington, but it was shelled last weekend, too – by Dallas, which had lost five in a row. New York is weakened at receiver and wants no part of a shootout with Philly.
“Growing up, we were always the ones who were taught we have to bring the intimidation,” Giants safety Deon Grant said of defensive players. “So when the offense intimidates a defense, you have problems.”
at CHARGERS (4-5)
Now this almost certainly will be a shootout. Denver can’t play defense very well, and San Diego’s Philip Rivers is the hottest quarterback around, on pace to break Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 yards passing. Denver’s Kyle Orton is second with 2,806 yards, 138 behind Rivers.
The Chargers are a minus-9 in turnover differential, with 21 giveaways, which usually leads to points.
at STEELERS (6-3)
Visions of the Immaculate Reception and the Raiders accusing the Steelers of icing the field for 1975 AFC championship game jump into the brain when reviewing this nasty rivalry. It’s nice to see both teams in contention, and a win here by the Raiders would add significant credibility to their record.
Oakland has won three in a row and has been a scoring machine with 115 points. Pittsburgh was manhandled in prime time last weekend by the Patriots, one of the Steelers’ worst losses in recent years. They should have one of their main leaders, WR Hines Ward, back after passing his post-concussion tests.
REDSKINS (4-5) at TITANS (5-4)
It’s Albert Haynesworth’s return to Nashville, where he apparently never wanted to leave.
Not that he’s having much impact for the Redskins, who come off that humbling defeat against the Eagles.
Will Haynesworth chase around Vince Young or do some more face-plants like he did against Michael Vick last Monday night?
The Titans have won 12 straight against the NFC, and Young is 12-2 as a starter against the conference. He got his first career win against Washington in 2006.
TEXANS (4-5) at JETS (7-2)
The Jets have won all four meetings with the Texans, who have lost their last three overall and four of five. Will Houston be even more deflated after falling on a desperation pass on the final play at Jacksonville?
Houston can move the ball, although Matt Schaub’s knee woes this week are problematic. The Texans don’t cover very well, ranking last in pass defense, and the Jets have pretty good weapons around Mark Sanchez.
Best matchup of the weekend might be Texans WR Andre Johnson against Jets CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
FALCONS (7-2) at RAMS (4-5)
That impressive final-minute drive to beat Baltimore has everyone in Atlanta stoked. A stumble here will crush that enthusiasm, and the Rams are tough at home.
Still, the Falcons seem to have hit a nice stride with balance on offense and big plays on defense from John Abraham, Brent Grimes and William Moore.
St. Louis is in contention in the mediocre NFC West, but needs victories at home to stay there.
BUCS (6-3) at NINERS (3-6)
The Niners, who believe they still are in the playoff mix in the NFC West, are 11-1 at home against Tampa Bay.
QB Troy Smith, making his third straight start even though incumbent Alex Smith now is healthy, is 2-0 so far, with no interceptions.
But Smith will operate without left tackle Joe Staley, out for a month or more with a broken left leg.
Only Philadelphia in the NFC has thrown fewer interceptions than Tampa Bay’s five, and the Bucs are a plus-5 in turnover margin; San Francisco is minus-4.
at PANTHERS (1-8)
Lots of red flags went up last week when the Ravens’ vaunted defense crumbled in Atlanta, allowing an 80-yard winning drive. If anything close to that happens against the injury-ravaged Panthers, it’s time to re-evaluate Baltimore.
Instead, the Ravens figure to dominate an opponent ranked last in offense and with virtually no threats, thus allowing Baltimore to triple-cover WR Steve Smith.
The Panthers have a league-low nine TDs and rank last in NFL in points per game (11.6).
at CHIEFS (5-4)
The Chiefs are reeling, with losses in four of their last six games, including a blowout defeat at Denver that brought into question a defense which now ranks 19th. They still can run the ball effectively behind Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, and the Cardinals have one of the league’s worst rushing defenses.
Arizona must turn around its fortunes soon for any chance to get to the playoffs for the third straight year – even in the NFC West.
LIONS (2-7) at COWBOYS (2-7)
Look at those records. Nothing surprising for the Lions, who haven’t posted a winning mark since 2000 and have four wins in the last 2 1/2 seasons – none away from home. The road slide is a record 25, and Detroit still is missing QB Matthew Stafford (shoulder).
Jason Garrett’s elevation to head coach in place of the fired Wade Phillips provided quite a spark, and Dallas broke a five-game slide by beating the Giants.
The Cowboys looked eager and disciplined in that game, and got all kinds of big plays from Dez Bryant, Felix Jones and rookie cornerback Bryan McCann.
at JAGUARS (5-4)
An impressive run of games has made the Browns respectable if not viable for the playoff race. They are doing it without any stars and with a rookie quarterback, Colt McCoy. But they play four of five on the road now.
For Jacksonville, any postseason hopes depend on winning games such as this, especially with the Giants, Titans, revitalized Raiders and Colts ahead.
BILLS (1-8) at BENGALS (2-7)
Terrell Owens gets to face one of his former teams – no, he hasn’t played for everybody. Not yet, at least.
The Bills won for the first time a week ago and look a lot more interested in the stretch drive than do the Bengals.
They’ve taken nine straight from the Bengals, but Owens surely will want to be influential Sunday, and he’s already having a good year.