Behind Enemy Lines: New Orleans

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The Saints aren't worried about what Dec. 30, the final playing date of the regular season, will -- or won't -- bring them.

The only thing the Saints (5-6) are concerned about is here and now, their Sunday showdown with the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4) in the Superdome.

Looking ahead to the playoffs won't do them a lot of good, nor will it help to start crunching the numbers to see how everything must fall for them to get into the postseason.

The only numbers that matter to coach Sean Payton this week are the ones he sees when he glances at the NFL standings. Because his team is currently two games behind the Bucs, a loss Sunday would leave the Saints three back with four remaining.

"We're 5-6," Payton said. "We're two games off the lead and we have a chance to play the team that has the lead (in the division) right now -- a team that beat us pretty good the first time out."

At this point, it's the most important game on the Saints' schedule. As far as Payton is concerned, however, it's the only game on the schedule. He won't allow himself or his team to look at the big picture as it relates to potential postseason scenarios.

"Our focus, and I know it's difficult for (the media) to hear, but our focus is really tunnel vision on this game -- knowing this game is an important one because it's a division game and one against a team that's ahead of you," Payton said. "We're battling. We're fighting. That's where we're at.

"We're hanging in there, and there are a number of other teams in the NFC right now in the same position. How these teams and ourselves, how these teams play down the stretch in December is going to be the reason you get in or you don't get in. That's what it is."

In addition to being two games behind the Bucs in the division race, the Saints are one game back in the chase for the final wild-card playoff spot -- tied with five teams. The good thing is the Saints play three of the teams that are tied with them in the next five weeks, which should help sort things out.

"You pay attention to games," Payton said. "But it's hard with five weeks left for me to spend a lot of time looking at the scenarios, knowing that the focus has to be on Tampa. You get caught looking at scenarios and you're not preparing for the short term.

"The only thing we can control is how we play this weekend. As the season gradually winds down, you pay more and more attention to the specifics that you're talking about. There's five weeks left. There's a lot of football left. And this game is the most important game of the season right now."

Payton is more interested in his team duplicating the numbers it put up in a 31-6 win over the Carolina Panthers last week -- specifically the season-high four turnovers they forced, which led to a plus-3 turnover margin, the six points they allowed, and the offense's 11-for-18 conversion rate on third down.

"The third-down area was critical in the game, both offensively and defensively," he said. "Being able to get them off the field and offensively being able to sustain some drives proved to be a big advantage for us. And I was encouraged with the turnovers."

SERIES HISTORY

32nd meeting. Saints lead the series, 19-12, even after dropping five of the past eight games to the Bucs. Tampa Bay won their first game this season, 31-14, at Raymond James Stadium, but New Orleans is 6-5 since the two teams became NFC South rivals in 2002.

NOTES, QUOTES

--TE Buck Ortega, a former University of Miami player who was signed to the Saints' practice squad Tuesday, talked about his relationship with Redskins S Sean Taylor after his first workout with his new team on Wednesday. Taylor died Tuesday after being shot at his Miami home.

Ortega was a high school teammate of Taylor at Gulliver Prep Academy in Miami, and the two roomed together for two years during their time with the Hurricanes.

A high school quarterback, Ortega threw a pair of touchdown passes to Taylor to help Gulliver Prep win the Florida Class 2A state championship game in 2000.

Ortega said he got the news about Taylor's shooting just minutes after agent Drew Rosenhaus, who is also Taylor's agent, called to tell him the Saints wanted him to join their practice squad.

"It's something that makes you sick," said Ortega, who was in the Redskins' training camp with Taylor in 2006.

"I didn't think it was anything," Ortega said of his initial reaction. "I packed up quick and went down to the hospital. I knew it was bad off the bat."

Ortega said the two had not been as close recently after he was waived by the Redskins. Taylor earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season, while Ortega was a member of the Cleveland Browns practice squad.

"I've been bouncing around and we haven't been able to see each other as much," Ortega said. "I would still see him every once in a while. We were very, very close."

--WR Marques Colston had quite a productive November with three consecutive 100-yard receiving games and a 93-yard effort in last week's 31-6 beating of the Carolina Panthers to close out the month.

Colston led the NFL in receptions (34) and was second in receiving yards (499) in the Saints' four November games.

The second-year pro started the month with 10 receptions for a season-high 159 yards against Jacksonville, then had eight catches for 129 yards vs. St. Louis. He grabbed nine passes for 118 yards at Houston before ending the month with a seven-catch, 93-yard effort at Carolina.

Through 11 games, Colston has 68 catches for 847 yards and six TDs. He ranks second on the team in receptions and leads the club in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

--After scoring touchdowns on each of their four trips to the red zone in last Sunday's win over Carolina, the Saints lead the NFL in red-zone efficiency.

The Saints have now scored 26 touchdowns on 35 visits to the red zone this season and are scoring TDs 74.3 percent of the time. The undefeated New England Patriots are second at 72.2 percent.

New Orleans has also kicked five field goals after reaching the red zone, which means they're 31-for-36 in scoring opportunities and have come away with points 88.6 percent of the time.

--The Saints made a couple of changes to their practice squad Tuesday.

They waived TE Zac Herold and signed tight end Buck Ortega to take his place on the eight-man squad.

Also, the team waived injured LB Alfred Fincher. A three-year veteran, Fincher was put on injured reserve on Nov. 4 after suffering a concussion one week earlier against the San Francisco 49ers.

--Deuce McAllister's Catch 22 Foundation hosted its fourth annual Holiday Shopping Adventure for underprivileged children on Tuesday.

McAllister's foundation pre-selected 140 New Orleans children and treated each to $100 shopping sprees at a suburban shopping mall. McAllister, who is on injured reserve with a knee injury, was joined by members of the New Orleans VooDoo and New Orleans Hornets to help the youngsters make their shopping selections.

The children also enjoyed a meal and played putt-putt on an indoor golf course.

"This event is my favorite one each year," McAllister said. "The smiles that light up the children's faces makes the holiday season special for me."

BY THE NUMBERS

19,763 -- Career passing yards for Saints QB Drew Brees, who needs just 237 yards to reach the 20,000-yard mark.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"It's an opportunity to get another win in our division. This would put us one game away and maybe help us start a new streak. It's like, 'We won one game, let's win another. Then, let's work on winning another and get one of these streaks we had going a few weeks ago.'" -- Saints QB Drew Brees on Sunday's big matchup with Tampa Bay.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Saints likely will be as healthy as they've been all season for Sunday's NFC South showdown with the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Superdome.

Coach Sean Payton said DT Brian Young would return after missing the past four games with an injured left knee. Young originally hurt his knee on Oct. 21 against Atlanta, but he was able to play the following week.

One of the Saints' top run-stoppers, Young then missed the next game because of swelling in the knee and eventually underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Nov. 7.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--DT Brian Young returned to practice Wednesday and should be ready to play against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Young missed the past four games after having his left knee 'scoped on Nov. 7.

--RB Reggie Bush was limited in Wednesday's practice due to a left shin bruise that he suffered on Nov. 18. He played last week, however, and is hoping to play again Sunday.

--DT McKinley Boykin did not participate in the team portion of Wednesday's practice because of a swollen left knee. He was able to do some individual drills.

GAME PLAN

The Saints did a better job of running the ball against Carolina last week, which helped open up the NFL's fourth-ranked passing attack. They'll need to run the ball effectively again Sunday in their matchup with Tampa Bay because the Bucs defense ranks fifth against the pass. But the Saints certainly won't back down and will try to take their shots when needed. Defensively, the Saints will have to do a better job of rushing the passer than they did in their first meeting with the Bucs in Week 2. That afternoon, they didn't get near Jeff Garcia, and he and wide receiver Joey Galloway made them pay by combining for two touchdown passes.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Saints RCB Jason David vs. Bucs WR Joey Galloway. Galloway has been a thorn in the Saints' side since joining the Bucs in 2004, catching at least one touchdown pass in six games with 10 TDs in all (nine receiving, one punt return). In the teams' first meeting in Week 2, Galloway burned David for scores of 69 and 24 yards while catching four balls for 135 yards.

Saints front seven vs. Bucs RB Earnest Graham. The Saints have been stout against the run this season and are tied for ninth in giving up 95.8 yards a game after holding the Panthers to 43 rushing yards last week. Graham has done a fine job since taking over for an injured Carnell Williams, but he will have to be at his best against the Saints. They have not allowed an individual 100-yard rusher in 10 consecutive games, a streak that dates to the season opener against Indianapolis.

Saints offensive line and tight ends vs. Bucs MLB Barrett Ruud. Ruud was a one-man wrecking crew against the Saints in their first meeting back in Week 2 with 16 tackles, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. That performance earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, so the Saints must make sure he's accounted for at all times and not allowed to run free to the ball carriers this time.

INJURY IMPACT

RB Reggie Bush could be limited again in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay because of a bruised left shin.

RB Aaron Stecker likely will get a large share of the carries for the second consecutive game if Bush is again not 100 percent healthy.


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