Inside slant: New Orleans Week 16 preview

Here's the "Inside Slant," your twice-weekly source for news about the Bucs' NFC South rivals. Today's edition previews Week 16's games, including personnel news, analysis and insider matchups for the New Orleans Saints. It's a premium service from Bucsblitz.com.

With only two games remaining in the regular season, the NFC wild-card playoff race isn't as muddied as it was just two weeks ago.

Things have sorted themselves out the last couple of weeks, leaving the New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, Saints, Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers fighting for the two wild-card berths.

Other than the Vikings, who have won five straight games, the Saints (7-7) might be the biggest surprise among the group of teams that are still in the hunt considering their 0-4 start to the season and 5-7 record after a 27-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Dec. 2.

The Saints will try to remain in the race with another "elimination game" on Sunday in the Superdome against the Philadelphia Eagles (6-8) after beating the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals the last two weeks.

The Saints were all but eliminated from the NFC South race after that heartbreaking loss to the Bucs, but they knew they might have a chance at a wild card if they could run the table and win their final four games.

Victories the past two weeks have them halfway there -- but they need help with two more wins and at least one loss by the Vikings or two by the Giants.

"For us, after the Tampa loss, it was pretty clear what we were going to have to do to give ourselves even a chance," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We are fighting still. We're scratching. There was a group of teams three weeks ago that were in that situation and that group gets smaller each week."

After the must-win game against the Eagles, the Saints will close the season at Chicago on Dec. 30. Those games are the only ones that matter to the Saints, who are focusing on themselves instead of the scoreboard.

"They understand the margin for error is pretty slim and we have to play good football here in these last two games," Payton said. "I think it's a lot more challenging when the subject comes up with five weeks, four weeks, six weeks left in the season.

"I think you bring it up," he said, "but the focus is one week at a time. When you bring up the topic of 'This is what we're going to have to do,' all right, let's start with the first task at hand. That was Atlanta. Then it's Arizona."

The Eagles, who lost twice to the Saints in the Superdome last season, are coming off an upset win over NFC East champion Dallas -- and Payton expects a tough challenge.

"I'm not going to have to stand up at the pulpit to try and explain to them that they are going to have to get up to play this game," Payton said. "They know that."

SERIES HISTORY

24th meeting. The Eagles lead the regular-season series, 14-9, while the teams are tied 1-1 in postseason play. The Saints took both matchups last season by identical 27-24 scores, winning on Oct. 15, 2006 and on Jan. 13, 2007 in an NFC divisional playoff game. Both games were played in the Superdome.

NOTES, QUOTES

--After being sidelined for the last two games with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Saints running back Reggie Bush returned to practice Wednesday.

Bush worked on a limited basis, getting most of his work in individual drills although he did get a few snaps in team drills, Saints coach Sean Payton said. Payton said Bush is making progress but is not yet full speed.

While he was encouraged at how Bush moved around in individual drills, his availability for Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles will be a game-time decision.

"There's still some swelling," Payton said. "I think there's a little less pain than he's had and he moved around pretty good in the individual work. He also got some team snaps, but it's not 100 percent."

Bush said he was ahead of schedule with his rehab and felt good, but hedged when asked if he had a gut feeling on whether he'll be ready Sunday.

"I guess you guys will have to wait and see. I can't give that away," he said. "I feel pretty good. We'll see how it goes, see what the doctors say and then we'll make a decision when the time comes."

--The Saints were shut out when the Pro Bowl squads were announced Tuesday, marking the first time in 27 years that the team did not have a player voted to the annual all-star game.

Quarterback Drew Brees, a Pro Bowl pick in 2006, and wide receiver Marques Colston were thought to have the best chance to make the NFC team, but both had a lot of competition at their respective positions.

Brees leads the NFL in completions (378), ranks third in yards behind Brett Favre and Tony Romo (3,819), is tied for third with Matt Hasselbeck in TD passes (25) and is fourth in passer rating (92.1). Favre, Romo and Hasselbeck claimed the three Pro Bowl spots.

Colston leads all NFC wide receivers in receptions (87). He ranks third in the conference in receiving yards (1,092), trailing only Terrell Owens and Larry Fitzgerald, and is fourth in TDs (nine). Owens, Fitzgerald, Donald Driver and Torry Holt were chosen to the NFC squad.

Colston was not even an alternate, but Brees and cornerback Mike McKenzie were second alternates. Defensive end Will Smith and fullback Mike Karney were third alternates.

--Brees didn't earn an invitation to the Pro Bowl, but he was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after connecting on 26 of 30 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Brees also had a passer rating of 132.6, marking the fourth straight week he's reached triple digits. He hit on 12 of his first 13 passes for 118 yards with a 19-yard TD. He also completed his last 12 attempts of the contest, going 10-for-10 in the second half.

It's the second time this season Brees has won the award. He was also honored after throwing for 336 yards and four TDs in the Saints' 31-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 8.

--Colston, a second-year pro, is on a big-time roll in the Saints' last eight games.

After catching eight passes for 114 yards and a 19-yard TD in the win over the Cardinals, Colston has posted some impressive numbers in his last eight games with 61 receptions for 829 yards and seven scores in that span.

For the season, Colston has 87 catches for 1,092 yards and nine TDs. He became just the third Saints player to record two straight 1,000-yard seasons, joining Eric Martin (1988-89) and Joe Horn (2000-02).

--Brees and his wife, Brittany, and defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy were among the members of the organization who helped spread holiday cheer in the last couple of weeks.

Drew and Brittany Brees presented bicycles and riding helmets to 500 pre-selected children from the Metairie and Kenner areas on Tuesday.

Clancy donated and helped distribute 50 bikes to youngsters in Kenner, as well as another 200 bicycles to underprivileged children in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Oxford, Miss., last week.

BY THE NUMBERS: 7

Games with a passer rating of at least 100.0 for quarterback Drew Brees in the last 10 outings. The Saints are 6-1 in those seven games.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"I think the most important thing is focusing on the one thing you can control. The one thing you can control is that game that week, and that's really it." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on what his players must do in making one final playoff push in the next two weeks.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Saints put veteran defensive tackle Brian Young, who missed last week's game with the Arizona Cardinals because of a rare form of pneumonia, on injured reserve Tuesday.

Young was hospitalized last week and underwent an arthroscopic procedure over the weekend to have fluid drained from the area between his chest cavity and lungs.

Saints coach Sean Payton said Young could be in the hospital for another week, which would put him out of Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles and likely sideline him for the season finale at Chicago as well.

Luckily, the Saints are well-stocked at the position with veterans Hollis Thomas, Kendrick Clancy, Renaldo Wynn and Antwan Lake all starting games at some point this season.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--RB Reggie Bush, who has missed the last two games with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and could play Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

--DT Brian Young was put on injured reserve Tuesday after he missed last Sunday's game with the Arizona Cardinals while hospitalized with a rare form of pneumonia.

--TE Eric Johnson was limited in practice Wednesday because of a groin injury. His status for Sunday's game with the Eagles is unknown.

--DL Renaldo Wynn did not practice Wednesday because of a turf toe injury. His status for this week is unknown.

--FS Josh Bullocks was able to practice after missing the last two games with a strained quadriceps muscle.

--DE Orien Harris practiced with the Saints for the first time Wednesday after being signed off the Buffalo Bills practice squad.

GAME PLAN

The Saints will be challenged on Sunday by the Philadelphia Eagles, who rank in the top 10 in total offense and total defense even though they have been eliminated from the NFC playoff chase. The Saints may find the going tough against the Eagles' sixth-ranked run defense, which means that the Drew Brees-led passing attack, which ranks third in the league with 266.4 yards a game, will have to be at its best in order to win. Brees and wide receiver Marques Colston have been extremely productive in the last eight to 10 weeks and will be the focal point of the Eagles defense.

On defense, the Saints will have to keep Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook under control and limit his big-play ability in order to be successful.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Saints front seven vs. Eagles RB Brian Westbrook. This should be the marquee matchup as the Saints have been solid against the run in allowing just 97.6 yards per contest. They've allowed just two individuals to rush for 100 yards this season although Westbrook, who has gained 1,191 yards on the ground in addition to 705 receiving yards, will certainly provide a stiff test.

Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Eagles FS Brian Dawkins. Saints coach Sean Payton lauded Dawkins as one of the league's top safeties during his weekly news conference. Dawkins makes plays all over the field, so Brees will have to be aware of his presence each and every time he drops back to throw the ball -- regardless of the down and distance.

Saints LT Jammal Brown vs. Eagles RDE Trent Cole. Brown was an All-Pro last season, but was left off the Pro Bowl team on Tuesday even though the Saints have allowed a league-low 12 sacks through 14 games. Cole was also snubbed in the Pro Bowl vote even though he is among the league leaders with 12.5 sacks. Both will have something to prove Sunday.

INJURY IMPACT

DT Antwan Lake may start Sunday in place of Brian Young, who was put on injured reserve Tuesday with a rare form of pneumonia, and Renaldo Wynn, who has a turf toe injury.

TE Billy Miller could make his second straight start on Sunday in place of Eric Johnson, who has a groin injury.


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