Inside slant: New Orleans Week 14 review

Here's the "Inside Slant," your twice-weekly source for news about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' NFC South rivals. Today's edition previews Week 14's games, including personnel news, analysis and insider matchups for the New Orleans Saints. It's a premium service from Bucsblitz.com.

For the longest time, the Saints have used (some might say overused) a simple one-word motto in the hopes of keeping their long-suffering fans in their corner.

Over the years, the word "Believe" has been seen on everything from T-shirts to billboards, bumper stickers and yard signs. So it comes as no surprise that the current Saints were using that word this week.

With a 5-7 record going into Monday night's game with the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, the Saints have no choice but to believe they can win their final four games and somehow earn a wild-card playoff berth.

While their NFC South title hopes were all but dashed with last Sunday's 27-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints realize they're still just one game out in the wild-card picture.

Quarterback Drew Brees took the opportunity to lay it all out just 18 hours after the disappointing setback against the Bucs, letting it be known that he wasn't going to stop believing as long as the Saints were mathematically in the race.

"You see it every year, in all levels of football, but especially in the NFL," Brees said. "You see those teams that somehow, some way, find a way to get in. They play well toward the end of the season and all of a sudden, they're in the playoffs and they're a team to be dealt with.

"I feel like that can be us. I feel like we're a playoff-caliber team. With a 5-7 record, we still haven't shown that. But there's no better time than these last four (games) to get this thing rolling and be a team to be reckoned with."

But once again, coach Sean Payton has to remind his players that they can't worry about what awaits them further down the road. The key to having a chance to make believers out of the rest of the league is in looking at the next four weeks as four one-game seasons.

"Right now, it would be a mistake if we were trying to paint scenarios for the playoffs," he said. "The way that we're going to approach this is we have four games left starting with Atlanta on Monday night. We're going to have to play better football regardless of who we're playing. It's really not about the opponent, it's more about us."

It's about not turning the ball over, not committing penalties at key times, not giving up big plays on defense, and finding balance between the running game and the passing game, he said.

"You don't want to use the word potential," Payton said earlier this week, "but certainly when we play good football, I'm sure everyone in that (locker room) -- along with the coaching staff -- believes we're capable of playing in the postseason this year.

"But we're 5-7. When you have a record like that, you also have to be realistic and say, 'Hey, what's got us to this point?' There's this finality that each team hits during the course of the regular season if they're not going to make the postseason. We haven't hit that finality, but we are going to have to play better."

SERIES HISTORY

77th meeting. Falcons lead the series, 43-33, even though the Saints have claimed the last three games. The latest win came on Oct. 21 in the Superdome when the Saints won 22-16 on a 4-yard TD catch by Reggie Bush and two-point run with 5:04 left. The Falcons lead 1-0 in postseason, taking a 27-20 win in a 1991 wild-card playoff game.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Baltimore Ravens weren't the only team upset over officiating last weekend. The Saints, however, weren't quite as critical and demonstrative after their 27-23 setback to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But Saints coach Sean Payton was still fuming Monday, one day after LT Jammal Brown was flagged for a false-start penalty on third-and-1 from the Saints' 40 in the third quarter.

The penalty wiped out Drew Brees' sneak for a first down and forced the Saints into a third-and-6 situation. After Payton took a timeout, Brees was sacked and the Saints had to punt the ball away.

Brown insisted after the game he didn't move. By Monday, Payton still wasn't convinced he'd seen an infraction after reviewing the tape.

"I don't know," Payton said. "I mean, you look at the tape and you rewind it 10 times, and you're still looking for it."

--Payton said he was pleased with his team's fans after he challenged them to step up their game against the division-leading Bucs. He said the volume and energy were excellent throughout the game.

"It was something else. They were outstanding," Payton said. "That's what I think the biggest disappointment is, when they support us like that and we can't get a win. That's troublesome.

"I know they go to work Monday still feeling the game, and all week long, feeling that same pain we're feeling right now. But they were outstanding."

--The Saints will be shooting for a rare back-to-back season sweep of the Atlanta Falcons, their longtime divisional rivals, when the teams meet Monday night in the Georgia Dome.

After taking both games last season, winning 23-3 in New Orleans and 31-13 in Atlanta, the Saints won the first matchup of the NFC South foes 22-16 on Oct. 21 in the Superdome.

If the Saints win again Monday, they will have swept the series two straight years for the first time since doing in it 1988 and '89 under Jim Mora.

--The Saints and Falcons have waged some close battles over the years, with 39 of their previous 77 meetings (counting the postseason) being decided by seven points or fewer.

Since 1990, 19 of the 35 regular-season games have been decided by seven points or fewer -- counting the victory by the Saints in the first game this season.

The Falcons hold a 23-16 edge in games decided by a touchdown or less.

--Former Saints LB Rickey Jackson, the most dominant defensive player in franchise history, is among 26 modern-era semifinalists who will be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2008.

A six-time Pro Bowl pick while with the Saints from 1981-93, Jackson is the first player to spend the majority of his career with the franchise to reach this stage of the voting.

Jackson, a second-round draft pick in 1981, was the heart and soul of the Saints defense as a relentless pass rusher and solid run defender for more than a decade. He is the club record-holder in sacks (115) and fumbles recovered (26), and he played in 195 games for the team.

"Rickey was a special player in our league and holds a special place in the memories of our fans," Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement posted on the team's Web site. "It was a joy to watch the way he could dominate a game and the passion he brought to the field."

BY THE NUMBERS: 324

Completions this season for Saints QB Drew Brees. He is on pace the break the NFL single-season record of 418 set by Oakland's Rich Gannon in 2002.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"He came in and apologized. You respect the fact that he stood up and owned up to it. But we're not the type of team that's going to hold anything against him. We win together and we lose together. That's what it comes down to." -- Saints SLB Scott Fujita, on coach Sean Payton apologizing for calling a risky play that resulted in a late fumble in his team's 27-23 loss to Tampa Bay.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The back end of the Saints secondary could have a different look for Monday night's game with the Atlanta Falcons.

SS Roman Harper, who has started all 12 games this season, was benched early in the second half of last week's 27-23 loss to Tampa Bay. He was replaced by Kevin Kaesviharn, whom Saints coach Sean Payton said would compete this week with Harper for the starting job.

Harper made two critical mistakes against the Bucs. He blew the coverage on a 60-yard catch and run by Joey Galloway that led to one touchdown in the first half and then whiffed on a tackle at the line of scrimmage on Earnest Graham's 25-yard TD run in the third period.

Kaesviharn, an unrestricted free agent who signed with the Saints during the offseason, saw his most extensive action since joining the team, playing on more than 40 snaps.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--LCB Mike McKenzie was held out of the closing minutes of last week's game after spitting up blood, but tests were negative and he should be ready for Monday night's game at Atlanta.

--RB/KR Pierre Thomas likely will be back for the contest with the Falcons after missing last week's game because of a bruised kidney.

--DT McKinley Boykin was sidelined for last week's game because of a left knee injury, and his status for the game against the Falcons is unknown.

--RB Jamaal Branch, who was signed from the practice squad to provide depth in the backfield because Pierre Thomas was inactive last week, was waived Tuesday.

--S Jay Bellamy, who was released to open a roster spot for Branch last week, was re-signed to the 53-man roster on Tuesday.

GAME PLAN

With their backs pressed to the wall and only four games remaining, the Saints may have to go back to what they do best in Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints threw the ball a season-low 23 times in last week's loss to Tampa Bay -- partly because the Bucs ranked fifth in the NFL against the pass going into that game. The Saints rank fifth at 257.9 passing yards, and challenging the Falcons down the field could be the way to go because the running game continues to struggle.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Saints LCB Mike McKenzie vs. Falcons WR Roddy White. McKenzie is having his finest season since joining the Saints three years ago with three interceptions (returning two for touchdowns) and a team-high 17 passes defensed. He'll have his work cut out for him Monday night, however, as White is coming on strong with two consecutive 100-yard receiving games.

Saints SS Kevin Kaesviharn vs. Falcons TE Alge Crumpler. Kaesviharn took over in the second half last week against Tampa Bay after second-year pro Roman Harper gave up a big pass play in the first quarter and then had a missed tackle on a 25-yard touchdown run. Kaesviharn has a reputation of being solid in pass coverage, which has been the biggest weakness for the Saints' defense this season.

Saints LT Jammal Brown vs. Falcons RDE John Abraham. Brown, who is not having as good a season as last year when he earned All-Pro honors, will need to be at his best against Abraham -- who has a team-high seven sacks. Drew Brees was sacked a season-high three times by the Bucs, and the Saints can't afford to keep going in that direction if they want to make a late-season playoff run.

INJURY IMPACT

RB/KR Pierre Thomas should be back for Monday's game with the Falcons after sitting out last week with a bruised kidney. Thomas, who leads the Saints in kickoff returns, is averaging 24.6 yards on 27 attempts with a long of 64 yards since being promoted from the practice squad in early October.


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