After finally securing their first win of the season on Sunday night over the Seattle Seahawks, the Saints know the last thing they can afford to do is be content with what they did.
While it was certainly a breakthrough for Sean Payton's team after losing its first four games, the Saints won't get carried away by their 28-17 upset victory over the Seahawks.
At 1-4, the Saints know they have a long way to go to climb out of the hole they dug for themselves at the outset of the season. As a result, living off last week's accomplishment won't do them any good going into Sunday's game with the Atlanta Falcons (1-5) in the Superdome.
Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita made that point perfectly clear when a relieved team returned to work Tuesday morning to run, lift weights and review the game tapes.
"The only thing that one win did was guarantee we're not going to be 0-16," said Fujita, who serves as one of the Saints' defensive captains. "We still got our butts kicked in the beginning of the season."
At least, Fujita said, he saw signs of life in the team's last two outings. The Saints dropped a 16-13 decision to the Carolina Panthers with several late-game miscues two weeks ago and showed some resolve in defeating the Seahawks -- looking much like the team that win 11 games a year ago.
"I think we all sensed that the tide was starting to turn," Fujita said. "We should have won the Carolina game, and that left a sour taste in everybody's mouth. So I think things are going to start to swing here."
Indeed, the Saints were on the verge of winning the Panthers game and Sunday night they really showed the form -- especially on offense -- that helped them reach the NFC Championship Game a year ago.
Against the Seahawks, the Saints ran the ball, they threw it effectively, they converted on third down and they scored three touchdowns in the first half after scoring just five offensive touchdowns in the first four games.
Defensively, the Saints held former All-Pro running back Shaun Alexander in check and survived an all-out passing attack by Matt Hasselbeck in the second half as the Seahawks tried to chip away at an 18-point halftime deficit.
Now, the question is can the Saints continue to do those things on a consistent basis and get out of the predicament they put themselves in after the first four games.
"We dug ourselves a hole, and as I've said after some tough losses, we have to make corrections and improve as a team and eliminate some of the things that are keeping us from winning games," said Payton. "We were able to do a better job of that in Seattle and now the focus shifts to playing Atlanta."
SERIES HISTORY: 76th meeting. The Falcons lead the series, 43-32, despite losing both of their meetings a year ago. The Saints won 23-3 in their first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and prevailed 31-13 in the rematch in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons, who have lost three straight in the Superdome, also hold a 1-0 edge over the Saints in postseason play -- winning an NFC wild-card matchup in 1991, 27-20.
--After a long plane ride home in the middle of the night from Seattle early Monday morning, Saints coach Sean Payton altered his team's practice schedule for this week's game with the Atlanta Falcons.
Normally, the team runs, lifts weights and reviews game tapes the day after a Sunday game. But because the Saints didn't return home until almost dawn on Monday, Payton gave his players the day off.
Then, he had them come in on Tuesday -- their regular in-season day off -- to do what they normally do on Monday. Wednesday was an off day, with Thursday, Friday and Saturday set as practice days for the Falcons game. With the short week, the team won't have a Saturday walkthrough.
--After recording just one sack in their first four games, the Saints went into Sunday night's game with the Seahawks with one thing in mind -- turning up the heat.
So the Saints blitzed more than in any other game this season, throwing linebackers and defensive backs at Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck all night. That helped free up the defensive linemen and the Saints finished with five sacks -- four more than in their first four games combined.
"I think one of the things that we wanted to do was to apply pressure, especially in the nickel (defense) and third-down situations," Payton said. "(Defensive coordinator) Gary (Gibbs) and his staff came up with a really good plan that the players executed.
"We were able to hurry Matt and force some decisions quicker than maybe he'd like. I thought the front played well. I thought that pressure helped us. It was good to see it executed and be effective."
--While the split between the Saints and four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn last winter was a messy one, Payton said he's not concerned with Horn trying to get some revenge on his former team this week.
He said he would expect nothing less from Horn, a competitive individual who asked for his release after refusing to take a pay cut from the team.
"Joe's like a lot of heavily competitive players," Payton said. "When they get in a big game, or any game, anything less than trying to be 100 percent effective to make plays is what you expect from excellent football players.
"It's just like our guys will be playing with effort and energy as Atlanta will be doing the same," he said. "It's really about both teams playing each other. It's not about an individual coming back. Every year you have some players playing their old team. It's more about the team trying to get a win on both sides."
--Payton was extremely complimentary of Horn and his work ethic in their only season together, which was ruined by a pulled groin that sidelined Horn for six regular-season games and both playoff contests.
"My experience in my time with him was one which was very positive," Payton said. "There's always a place where I'm always going to remember guys like Joe Horn or guys that played for me that gave the effort and energy and put it on the line like he did for us in a season that was pretty special.
"He's someone that's been a great competitor, has had a great career and has worked his tail off," he added. "He had to go the long way to get where he's at. Through determination and hard work, he's someone that persevered and made himself a special player in our league."
--Even though New Orleans took both games handily last season, winning 23-3 in the Superdome and 31-13 in the Georgia Dome, the Saints and Falcons have waged some close battles over the years.
The bitter Deep South rivals have played twice a year as members of the NFC West from 1970-2001 (except when they met only once in the strike-shortened season in 1987) and since 2002 as NFC South foes.
Thirty-seven of their games, which represent almost half of their 77 meetings (including one NFC wild-card playoff game), have been decided by seven points or less. The trend started with a 27-24 Saints victory in the first matchup back on Nov. 26, 1967 -- in New Orleans' inaugural season.
The Falcons hold a 23-14 edge over the Saints in games decided by a touchdown or less.
BY THE NUMBERS: 106.9 -- Passer rating for Saints quarterback Drew Brees in directing his team to a win over the Seattle Seahawks, his highest rating this season by 32.8 points.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We needed one victory. We're trying to right the ship and you have to start somewhere. We still made some mistakes and stuff, but we're just trying to show everybody that we are not giving up. We did what we were supposed to do. We finally did it." -- Saints DT Hollis Thomas, on his team's 28-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Going into last week's matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, the Saints were determined to apply a lot more pressure to Matt Hasselbeck than they had in their first four games.
The plan worked as the Saints brought pressure from up the middle and off the corners and piled up a season-high five sacks against the Seahawks, who had allowed 10 sacks in their first five games.
The Saints might employ that same type of strategy Sunday against Atlanta. The Falcons have allowed 22 sacks in just six games and new starting quarterback Byron Leftwich will be working behind a patched-up offensive line -- an invitation for the Saints to use their speed and quickness to make him rush his decision-making process.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--K Olindo Mare did not attempt a field goal in last week's game with the Seattle Seahawks, but he kicked four extra points and appears to be making progress with his strained groin.
--CB Usama Young, a rookie who's seen more action in the last two weeks, may be limited in practice after straining his shoulder in the second quarter against the Seahawks.
--SLB Scott Fujita did not show any ill effects from the sprained right ankle that forced him to miss a game with Carolina on Oct. 7 and should be ready for Sunday's game with the Atlanta Falcons.
--S Jay Bellamy, who has been bothered by a sprained left ankle, was inactive for last week's game at Seattle. His status for Sunday's game was not known Wednesday.
--RCB Jason David remains out with a fractured left forearm that required surgery on Sept. 25. He is expected to be sidelined for another one-to-three weeks.
GAME PLAN: The Saints simply have to do what they did in Sunday's win over the Seattle Seahawks -- and that's not beat themselves. They were able to get their running game and passing game going at the same time for the first time this season. The balance had the Seahawks defense on its heels most of the night and the Saints capitalized to take a 28-7 cushion before coasting to the win. Defensively, the Saints strength has been in stopping the run. When they stopped Shaun Alexander last week, they turned up the heat on Matt Hasselbeck and turned in their best defensive performance. They would love to do the same thing to Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood and force Byron Leftwich to beat them.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Saints front seven vs. Falcons RB Warrick Dunn. A Baton Rouge native, Dunn has had some big games against his home-state team. But he's had trouble getting going this season in averaging just 3.2 yards a carry and the Saints know they have to keep him in check -- along with backup Jerious Norwood.
Saints RCB Jason Craft vs. Falcons WR Joe Horn. The Saints released Horn last winter when he refused to take a pay cut and their former players have a long history of coming back to haunt them. Horn has only 11 catches for 117 yards this season, but the Saints defensive backs know that he's capable of breaking out in a big way if they're not careful.
Saints RDE Will Smith vs. Falcons LT Renardo Foster. Smith has only one sack this season, but the Saints decided to bring more heat last week. If they go with the same game plan this week, Foster, an undrafted free agent who was thrown into the lineup when Wayne Gandy went down with a knee injury, will be put to a big test in trying to protect Leftwich's back side.
INJURY IMPACT: David will miss his third straight game on Sunday with a fractured left forearm.
Young, who has been playing more since the injury to David, has a strained shoulder and may be limited in practice this week.
--CB Fred Thomas, who has been active for the last two games, could see more playing time this week if Young is unable to go.