Behind enemy lines: New Orleans

After allowing 617 rushing yards in their past three games, including 281 to the Falcons last Sunday, the Saints defense needs all the help it can get with the 49ers coming to town. The Saints can score points in bunches, but that might not do them much good if the 49ers are controlling the ball on the ground all afternoon against a New Orleans defense that could be without two of its top players.

Facing the league's fourth-ranked rushing team, the Saints could be without two of their top defenders - right defensive end Will Smith and middle linebacker Mark Simoneau.

Smith, who leads the Saints with 8.5 sacks, has a bruised right knee that kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday. Simoneau was wearing a hard cast on his fractured left hand, which forced him to sit out Wednesday's practice.

The Saints got a little good news when Simoneau was able to return to practice, but he and Smith remain questionable for Sunday's game. Neither player has been ruled out, although coach Sean Payton has leaned toward holding out players who don't practice on Wednesday and Thursday - depending on the position they play, of course.

Smith, who had two sacks of Falcons quarterback Michael Vick last Sunday, said he was hurt in the third quarter when he banged knees with another player while trying to make a tackle. He returned one series later.

"It's not a big deal," Smith said. "I should be able to play this week, depending on what they say. It's up to the trainers and the coach."

Simoneau was much more secretive about his injury. His hand was in a cast and he wore a sling, but would not divulge any details about how he was injured.

"I'm hoping to play," said Simoneau, who ranks seventh on the team with 51 total tackles. "It's just kind of wait and see right now."

If Smith can't play against the 49ers, he likely would be replaced by veteran Willie Whitehead. Former Raiders starter Danny Clark would take Simoneau's spot in the Saints' 4-3 base defense.

The Saints also have a few injury issues in their secondary, but it doesn't appear that will hamper them Sunday. Left cornerback Fred Thomas worked again Thursday and is probable for Sunday despite having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. Free safety Bryan Scott, who was sidelined last week with an injury to his left foot, practice again Thursday and is listed as probable for Sunday.

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Saints quarterback Drew Brees could finally smile about one of his 300-yard passing game after last week's 31-13 blowout of the Atlanta Falcons.

In the four previous games in which the six-year veteran threw for 300 yards, including a 510-yard performance one week earlier, Brees had to talk about how his team didn't win. But the Saints took care of that with the easy victory over the Falcons.

Brees was 21-of-30 for 349 yards and two touchdowns in compiling a passer rating of 131.1 against the Falcons. In doing so, he pushed his league-high passing total to 3,463 yards - 499 yards more than Peyton Manning. His five-game total of 1,954 is the most in NFL history.

But Brees isn't into passing numbers; he is into big plays that help his team win. His 76-yard scoring strike to Devery Henderson on the third play of the game got the Saints off to a fast start and his 48-yard hookup with Terrance Copper on the final play of the first half gave his team a 21-6 lead.

"I'm sure they could make up some kind of record for every situation," Brees said. "If we're winning games, that's great. ... I kind of go by the saying, 'You're only as good as your next performance.'"

But he did allow himself one chance to look back on Sunday's game. Brees was still beaming about the "Hail Mary" pass to Copper, who positioned himself in front of Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall and outjumped Derrick Johnson for the ball and a backbreaking touchdown.

Brees said he hadn't completed one like that since "street ball back when I was 9 years old on Woodrow Street in Austin, Texas."

"I'd say 70 percent of the time those things get picked off, 29 percent of the time it gets batted down and there's that 1 percent where it gets caught by your guy," Brees said, "and it's a great feeling."

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With 3,463 passing yards in 11 games this season, Brees is on pace to become the second NFL quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season.

He's also flirting with Dan Marino's all-time record of 5,084 yards set back in 1984. If Brees continues at his current pace in the team's final five games, he'll finish with 5,037 yards.

Brees has amassed the second-highest passing total for the first 11 games of a season. Rich Gannon threw for 3,535 yards in the first 11 games in 2002, while Brees has 3,463 yards this season - putting him 11 yards ahead of Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who had 3,452 in 1990.

In last week's win over the Falcons, Brees became the sixth quarterback in league history to throw for more than 300 yards in five consecutive games - leaving him one shy of the league mark shared by Steve Young (1998), Kurt Warner (2000) and Gannon (2002).

Joe Montana (1982) and Kerry Collins (2000-01) authored five-game 300-yard passing streaks.

With his seventh 300-yard passing game of the season, which was a 349-yard effort in the win over the Falcons, Brees broke Archie Manning's club record of six in a season in 1980. Brees is already third on the club's all-time list in that category behind Aaron Brooks, who recorded 10 300-yard games from 2000-05 and Manning, who had nine from 1971-75 and 1977-82.

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The 7-4 Saints have a one-game lead in the NFC South after snapping a two-game losing streak with the win over Atlanta, but they're not getting giddy about it.

Especially not their rookie head coach. Payton is as grounded as they come, considering that he spent three seasons (2003-05) working for future Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells.

Payton is pleased with where the Saints are at this point, obviously, but what's more important is there are five games left in the regular season - starting with Sunday's home game against the 5-6 49ers.

"This my 10th year in the league, and I've never seen a team win seven games and get in the playoffs," Payton said, "so we've got a lot of football left. We've got five weeks still to play. ... We're not sitting at 10 wins or 11 wins. That's the approach you have to take."

Yet, it's difficult for the fans to not get overly excited about where these Saints have come from and where they might be headed if they can win at least two or three more games after winning only three times in 2005.

The Saints have certainly set themselves up well for the final stretch drive. In addition to a 7-4 record, which is tied for second-best in the NFC behind the Chicago Bears' 9-2 mark, the Saints are 6-1 in the conference and 4-1 in the NFC South - giving them leverage if the playoff chase comes down to tiebreakers.

If they make the playoffs, the next targets would be a home game and a first-round bye. Which is why Payton quickly made sure his team has tunnel vision with only the 49ers in their sights. Payton's right. No seven-win teams have ever made the playoffs, so with each additional win the Saints greatly improve their chances. That would help them fulfill their pre-season goal of making the playoffs, lofty expectations that almost no one had of them.

"Coming into the season, believe it or not, that was an expectation for all of us," Brees said. "We knew it was going to be a lot of hard work, and it wasn't going to be easy. This is a tough division, but we felt like that was an expectation."

Brees said winning the division comes first. If that happens, the goal would become earning home-field advantage in the NFC and then getting to the Super Bowl and winning it.

But, he stressed, winning as many games in the next five weeks is what matters most at this point. He said the Saints broke it down into a six-game season prior to last week's win over the Falcons.

"So we're 1-0 in our six-game season, and we just need to kind of keep taking it one week at a time -- and not really look too far down the road," Brees said. "When you look too far down the road, you end up kind of stumbling over something right in front of you.

"We need to make sure we're ready for this week and we'll just continue to take it one week at a time. It's going to be monotonous. One at a time ... one at a time."

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The Saints put veteran tight end Ernie Conwell on injured reserve Wednesday, ending his season after just seven games.

Conwell had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee on Oct. 18 and missed four games before returning for last Sunday's game at Atlanta. But Payton said that after playing 12 snaps, they realized Conwell's knee hadn't progressed as quickly as they had hoped.

"With the soreness and where he's at physically, it's hard to say that it's going to be getting better at the pace we hoped it would," Payton said.

It's the third time in four years with the Saints that Conwell, 34, has finished a season on injured reserve. He fractured an ankle in 2003 and had knee and wrist surgeries in 2005.

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Wide receiver Marques Colston, who leads the Saints in receiving yards with 869, said his sprained left ankle is getting better but reported some stiffness in the joint Wednesday.

"I'm just trying to realize that it's going to be a process and it's not going to get better overnight," said Colston, who was held out of practice after he sat out last week's game with the injury. "It's kind of lingering around, so I'm just trying to get treatment every day and just trying to take it slow.

"Obviously an ankle, with a receiver, is definitely a big deal. You want to be back out there playing, but you want to be smart about it, too. We don't want to jeopardize the rest of the season."

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When Brees completed a 48-yard pass to Copper on the final play of the first half in last week's 31-13 win over the Falcons, it wasn't the first time Payton had seen a Hail Mary prayer answered.

But he said it was the first time he's seen one completed cleanly. Payton said those kind of passes usually get tipped around before someone hauls it in. In fact, he watched the New York Giants complete one -- against the Saints -- in 1999 while a member of the Giants' coaching staff.

"That was the first time I've ever seen anybody just jump up and catch a clean Hail Mary," Payton said of Copper's grab. "The last time that we had one completed, I was in New York against the Saints in 1999. Kent Graham threw one to (Joe) Jurevicius, but that (a 53-yarder) was tipped. Jurevicius got underneath it and caught it, and he ran right into the tunnel.

"That's a tough deal to end the half that way on the other side of it. When you complete a Hail Mary at the end of the half, there's obviously a boost of momentum for one team and a letdown for the other. So that was an important play."

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Saints kicker John Carney moved up another spot to fifth on the NFL's all-time scoring list with seven points against the Falcons. His 25-yard field goal in the final quarter gave him 1,713 points, moving him past Nick Lowery (1,711).

Carney, a 17-year veteran, also had four extra points and finished the game with 1,714 points. He needs just 23 points to slip past Norm Johnson (1,736) into fourth place.

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