KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
TV: CBS (Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots)
PREDICTION: Saints 34-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: As up and down as the offense had been, there were mostly downs for the defense until the Saints put it all together last week, sinking the Bucs with strong play in all phases. RB Chris Ivory might have been the greatest factor in the team's collective dominance, averaging 10.5 yards per carry. If the Saints get back to balance, the Browns are likely to be bailing water early in the game. Rookie QB Colt McCoy acquitted himself nicely at Pittsburgh and will start his second consecutive game. To survive in the Superdome, the Browns have to recharge RB Peyton Hillis (69 rushing yards past two games) and get backup Mike Bell more involved. Cleveland has to keep it close as its already punchless offense (14.7 points per game) could be without WR Mohamed Massaquoi and WR/Wildcat QB Joshua Cribbs due to concussions.
FAST FACTS: The Browns are 7-2 all-time at New Orleans. ... Saints QB Drew Brees has won eight straight games against AFC teams.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
With a rash of injuries to their secondary, the Saints could use a veteran player like free safety Darren Sharper to help add some stability to the unit for this week's game against the Browns.
Sharper, who spent the first six games of the season on the physically unable to perform list, returned to practice Wednesday and pronounced himself ready to return to the active roster.
But the decision will be made by Saints coach Sean Payton and his staff on whether Sharper, who had microfracture surgery on his knee in early March, can help a banged-up secondary this week.
Right cornerback Tracy Porter will miss his third consecutive game after having arthroscopic knee surgery 2 1/2 weeks ago, while left cornerback Jabari Greer isn't 100 percent after injuring his left shoulder last week at Tampa Bay.
"If it went (by) my gut, I'm ready to play," Sharper said after Wednesday's practice, his first full workout with his teammates since before Super Bowl XLIV.
"The knowledge I have from playing is something I can use, and I felt that today when I was out there," he said. "A lot of times you feel rusty. I didn't really feel rusty. I felt it kind of became commonplace when I got back out there and got back to the movements. It kind of felt normal."
Payton said Sharper took some snaps with the first-team defense and with the scout team on Thursday, but he still wasn't ready to say if Sharper would be back for Sunday's game
"He looked pretty good," Payton said. "We'll just keep evaluating him day-to-day.
"We'll see how he feels (Friday) and just keep paying attention to that."
Colt McCoy ran the first-team offense during practice Wednesday and Thursday. Barring a miraculous recovery from ankle injuries that kept Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace out of the game last week and out of practice both days, McCoy will start for the Browns against the Saints on Sunday in the Superdome, coach Eric Mangini said.
McCoy completed 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown during his NFL debut in Pittsburgh last week. He also threw two interceptions.
Sunday's game will feature two quarterbacks that do not fit the ideal mold of a quarterback standing 6-foot-4 or 6-5. New Orleans' Drew Brees is 6 feet; McCoy stands 6-1.
Just as Brees kept hearing about his height early in his career as a second-round choice of the Chargers, an interview with McCoy doesn't go long without his height being mentioned.
Coincidentally, Wallace, the starter in the four games before the ankle injury sent him to the sideline, is only 5-foot-11.
"I've been playing this position my whole life," McCoy said. "It's really not an issue. Throughout your time playing, you just find ways to get the ball out.
"I didn't have a tipped ball the whole game (in Pittsburgh), and guys are having their hands up. I don't really pay attention to (height). Either a guy's got it or he doesn't. Either he can go out there and play or he can't. Seneca's a guy who's got every tool. He can go out there and play and compete. It is what it is."
Any comparison between Brees and McCoy at this point of their NFL careers has to end at their size. Brees took the Saints to the Super Bowl championship last year. McCoy is 0-1 as a starter.
Saints coach Sean Payton says a quarterback's heart and head are more important than his size.
"It gets back to the important characteristics of a quarterback," Payton said. "Do they have good accuracy? Are they smart? Are they able to process information very quickly and deliver the football?
"Are they a good foot athlete? Drew is an exceptional foot athlete when you watch him move and adjust in the pocket. Colt has some of those characteristics."
McCoy has impressed his teammates with his leadership. He spoke to the team at the hotel in Pittsburgh last Saturday night and told them, "The hay is in the barn." Translation: The practice is over and it's time to play the game.
"I saw him take control of the huddle," guard Eric Steinbach said. "We thought that Jake coming in right away had that leadership. It seems like it's carrying over to Colt and Seneca."
GAME PLAN: The Browns better get some help for cornerbacks Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown, because the Saints like to use three- and four-receiver sets. Eight of the Saints receivers have 10 or more catches.
Wright gave up three touchdown passes to Anquan Boldin of the Ravens and he gave up two in the loss to the Steelers. His shortcomings have allowed Brown's misdeeds to go relatively unnoticed. Brown, acquired from the Eagles along with linebacker Chris Gocong for a fourth- and fifth-round draft pick in 2010, is slow. Brown seems to fall once a game while chasing a receiver from behind.
Rookie Joe Haden could be starting soon, possibly as early as Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champions.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns ILB Eric Barton vs. Saints RB Chris Ivory. If the Browns fret too much about Drew Brees tearing them up they're going to be gashed by Ivory. Ivory is primarily a between-the-tackles runner. He rushed for 158 yards vs. Tampa Bay last week.
Browns RG Shawn Lauvao vs. Saints DT Sedrick Ellis. Any chance the Browns have of beating the Saints starts with running back Peyton Hillis. He rushed for 28 yards vs. the Falcons and 41 yards in Pittsburgh after back-to-back 100 yard games. He needs a hole to bust through and Lauvao can create one.
--Browns linebacker Scott Fujita played with the Saints for four years before signing with the Browns in March. He still has a fondness for New Orleans; he donated one-quarter of his Super Bowl check to the wetlands recovery program in the New Orleans area as it continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
--The Saints were the first opponent the expansion Browns beat in 1999. Tim Couch threw a Hail Mary on the final play -- on Halloween, appropriately -- and Kevin Johnson somehow caught the ball in a tangle of bodies in the front right corner of the end zone.
The line of scrimmage was the Browns' 42. Couch dropped back another eight to 10 yards before launching it. Johnson, sprinting downfield, said he tracked the flight of the ball on the Superdome video screen. Saints defensive backs Tyronne Drakeford and Sammy Knight each deflected the ball, but neither batted it down. Johnson snatched the ball and hung on.
The Browns lost seven straight games in 1999 before beating the Saints. They beat the Bengals on Dec. 17, 1995, lost their final game that season and then three years elapsed before the Browns were reborn as an expansion team in 1999. A total of 1,409 calendar days elapsed between victories.
--The game Sunday will be the only one the Browns play in a domed stadium this season. They played one game in a dome last year, and though they lost they would love a repeat offensive performance; the Browns scored 37 points but still lost by a point.
--The Browns' newest running back, Mike Bell, earned a Super Bowl ring with the Saints last season. He carried the ball 172 times and rushed for 654 yards.
BY THE NUMBERS: 29 -- Catches by Benjamin Watson makes him the Browns' receiving leader. He caught 29 passes all of 2009 with the Patriots.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That drives me nuts. They should wrap them up, wrap them up, wrap them up, because you can do both." -- Browns coach Eric Mangini on defensive players looking for the hard hit first.
--LCB Jabari Greer, who injured his left shoulder in Sunday's game at Tampa Bay, didn't practice again Thursday. His status for this week's game with the Browns was unknown.
--WLB Scott Shanle did not participate in practice Thursday because of a hamstring injury. His availability for Sunday's game was unknown.
--RCB Tracy Porter did not practice Thursday as he continues to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery. He likely will miss his third straight game Sunday.
--RB Pierre Thomas, who has been out for the last three games because of a sprained left ankle, didn't practice Thursday. The timetable for his return was unknown.
--RB Reggie Bush didn't practice again Thursday because of a fractured right fibula. He likely will miss his fifth consecutive game Sunday.
--RDE Will Smith, who's been hampered by a groin injury, was limited in Thursday's practice. His availability for Sunday's game was unknown.
--SS Roman Harper was limited in Thursday's practice with a right hamstring injury he's been battling the last few weeks. His status for Sunday's game was unknown.
--RCB Patrick Robinson worked on a limited basis Thursday because of a knee injury, and his status for the Browns game was unknown.
--RG Jahri Evans, who was limited Wednesday with a hamstring problem, had full participation in Thursday's practice.
--RB Julius Jones worked fully Thursday after being limited in Wednesday's practice with a shoulder injury.
--TE Jeremy Shockey, who was limited in practice Wednesday because of the flu, was off the injury report Thursday.
--CB Randall Gay was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with recurring symptoms from the concussion he suffered in the Sept. 20 game at San Francisco.
--CB Quincy Butler, who played in 14 games with seven starts for the St. Louis Rams in 2009, was signed to take CB Randall Gay's spot on the active roster.
--Billy Yates and Shawn Lauvao worked at right guard Thursday. Womack started the first six games at right guard.
--KR/PR/WR Josh Cribbs missed practice Thursday because he is suffering from a concussion. If he is cleared to play, he will not be restricted, coach Eric Mangini said.
--WR Mohamed Massaquoi missed practice Thursday because he is suffering from a concussion.
--TE Robert Royal missed practice Thursday with an elbow injury.