Up next: Saints surging back into contention

The New Orleans Saints are back in the playoff hunt after an 0-4 start, and nobody should really be surprised.

Cam Jordan had a question for anyone surprised to see the Saints back at .500 and battling again for a spot in the NFL's second season for the fourth consecutive year.

''Why are you astounded?'' the Saints' second-year defensive end began. ''We have the quarterback that we have. We have the key defensive players that we have. (It was) sort of disappointing to start off the way that we did, of course. Everybody expected a lot better of us and we expected a lot better of ourselves. Now that we're back at .500, we're trying to put this thing back on the right track and keep it rolling.''

After an 0-4 start, New Orleans has won five of six games to get back to 5-5, one game behind three 6-4 teams – Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay – currently tied for the last NFC wild-card spot.

''Maybe to the outside (New Orleans' turnaround) was shocking because it was such a slow start. But there was never a doubt in anybody's mind that it could happen inside this locker room,'' center Brian de la Puente said. ''There was never a doubt in anybody's mind that we could get back to .500 and continue this winning because this organization, this coaching staff, this team – we have a winning tradition that they've set here.''

The offseason bounty scandal and resulting season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton provided the Saints with an excuse for an off year, but the club seems to have adjusted.

The Saints now have six games to make up remaining ground to get to a fourth straight postseason, but what's left of their schedule is tough, with the next three games against current division leaders: San Francisco, Atlanta and the New York Giants.

That might explain why assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has helped guide New Orleans to wins in three of four games since his return from a six-game bounty suspension, sounded like he was warning his players against acting like they'd accomplished anything yet.

''We've got miles to go. We're nowhere near where we need to be,'' Vitt said earlier this week. ''We're nowhere near where anyone on this team wants to be. That's why every practice and every meeting and every chance you have to get better is critical. This is a marathon.''

In terms of statistical rankings, the Saints remain about where they were after Week 4. Their offense, led by ever-prolific quarterback Drew Brees, ranks fifth. The defense ranks last, having given up more than 400 yards in every game this season, even in the 38-17 victory Sunday at Oakland.

Running game, defense have made recent strides

However, New Orleans has made significant strides in the running game during its current three-game winning streak, while its defense has been stout in the red zone and more opportunistic in the turnover department.

In their first seven games, the Saints eclipsed 100 yards rushing once and failed to gain more than 53 yards four times. In their last three games, they've rushed for 140, 148 and 153 yards – all without Darren Sproles (broken left hand), who could return this week.

''With the early struggles we had in the run game, we just kept at it. We stressed the little things. We knew we were close the whole time,'' de la Puente said. ''We are at a point right now where we're very confident in our run game.''

The defense is gaining confidence as well.

In the Saints' victory over Philadelphia three games ago, the Eagles had five possessions inside the Saints 20 without scoring a touchdown. New Orleans forced Atlanta to settle for two field goals in the red zone and the Falcons turned the ball over on downs late in the game from inside the 5. Against Oakland, New Orleans safety Roman Harper intercepted a tipped pass in the Saints' end zone to thwart another red-zone chance.

Meanwhile, first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo continues to see evidence of his players adjusting to his scheme. A prime example was Malcolm Jenkins' interception return for a score at Oakland.

Safeties were expected to make more plays on the ball in Spagnuolo's system, and that has been happening more for Jenkins and Harper lately.

''Sometimes it takes a little time,'' Spagnuolo said. ''Both those guys have come a long way in this system and they're both good football players.''

Many Saints players are quick to point out that even as they opened 0-4, each loss ended as a one-possession game.

''We kept plugging away and kept believing that things would turn, and they have,'' Brees said. ''We're starting to catch some breaks. We're starting to just kind of hit our stride, but still I feel like our best is yet to come. I still don't feel like we've put together just a fantastic performance.''

That may be required of Brees and Co. soon enough, perhaps starting on Sunday when the mighty 49ers come to town.

Rookie tackle faces big challenge in first NFL start

Saints rookie right tackle Bryce Harris is so grateful to have a chance to play in the NFL he isn't about to complain about the timing of his first career start, which is likely to come this Sunday against a San Francisco defense featuring some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.

"I'm just glad to have the opportunity to start," Harris said following practice on Thanksgiving. "I'm lucky for all this to happen to me. I've just got to take advantage of my opportunities."

Harris entered the NFL with Atlanta as an undrafted rookie out of Fresno State and made the Falcons' practice squad before being signed to New Orleans' active roster in early September. Harris did not play a down until being pressed into service last week at Oakland, after Charles Brown went down with a right knee injury.

Brown had been playing in place of injured starter Zach Strief, who has been sidelined since Nov. 5, when he injured his left groin during a victory over Philadelphia.

"It was nerve racking, obviously. Not warmed at all," Harris recalled of his unplanned debut in Oakland. "My head was just racing."

The Saints went on to rout the Raiders, and although Harris was beaten a few times after he first went in, he seemed to settle into his role as the game wore on.

"Bryce did a good job last week," said Strief, who returned to practice on a limited basis this week. "Obviously, he gets tossed into the fire in the middle of a two-minute drill. That's less than ideal. I feel his pain. I've been in this situation before. It's not easy physically. It's not easy mentally, especially as your first reps in a live game."

Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Thursday that Strief looked good in practice and appears to be ahead of schedule, but he stopped short of saying whether the veteran starter would be ready to play by Sunday.

For now, all signs point to Harris making his first start against the 49ers, whose lineup features defensive stars such as linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.

Niners defense brings multi-faceted arsenal

The 49ers allow an NFL-low 13.4 points per game. They have allowed 277.2 yards per game, which ranks second in the league. Aldon Smith has 15 sacks this season. Defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks are also top play-makers on one of the league's best defenses.

Harris said he doubts the 49ers would change to their already successful defensive scheme just to challenge him, but he expects San Francisco to try to test him early, one way or another.

"I'm sure the first play Brooks is going to come off full blast and try to knock me out and just try to put that intimidation into me," Harris said. "I'm expecting it and I'm just going to handle it accordingly."

Harris said that if he does start, he will be glad he had last week's experience, along with a full week of practice with the first team. Coaches have also noted that there are ways to help inexperience tackles by having running backs and tight ends deliver more "chip" blocks.

"Last week let me get all the nerves out so I don't feel nervous," Harris said. "This week I got all the reps with the first-team. So I got what (the 49ers are) going to do defensively."

Harris noted that Strief has been tutoring him and that playing alongside right guard Jahri Evans, and All-Pro last season, helps as well.

Brees said he thought Harris looked "very calm and comfortable" for a player seeing his first NFL action. Strief echoed those comments.

"He's a really good athlete, strong player," Strief said. "He has picked our stuff up extremely well. We have a lot of nuances in our technique and he's really on top of that stuff. ... You see so much improvement week to week and he's a good player. He's a guy I think all of us have plenty of faith in.

Former commish's ruling in ‘bounty-gate' coming soon

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue plans to complete all hearings in the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints by Dec. 4 and make a ruling shortly after.

Such timing potentially could be disruptive for the Saints, who could lose starting defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma while trying to claw back into playoff contention.

In a document obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, Tagliabue directs the NFL to produce key witnesses in the New Orleans Saints' cash-for-hits program, including former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo.

Four players initially were suspended, but those punishments were vacated. Commissioner Roger Goodell re-issued the suspensions with some modifications, and when the players appealed again, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to oversee the new hearings. Vilma and Smith are still playing pending the outcomes of their appeals.

Smith said he was pleased with Tagliabue's decision to hold the NFL responsible for producing witnesses who helped with the league's investigation.

''The most important thing is that Gregg Williams and those other guys are going to have to testify and be cross-examined,'' Smith said. ''We'll see if their story stays the same.''

Even as Tagliabue moves the process forward, a federal judge is still considering arguments by players that Tagliabue should be removed as arbitrator because he is biased in favor of the NFL. Based on the schedule laid out by Tagliabue, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan could choose to rule as early as next week.

Smith said he was ''not concerned'' about the NFL's timeline calling for a decision before the season ends, adding, ''Whatever happens, happens. I don't think I'll be surprised.''

Vilma was not in the Saints' locker room while it was open to reporters earlier this week.

For now, only Williams, Cerullo, Vilma, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller are the only scheduled witnesses.

They are scheduled to appear in a series of hearings in Washington D.C. running from Tuesday through Dec. 4. That means Vilma and Smith likely will be available at least for the Saints' next two games against San Francisco this Sunday and at Atlanta on Nov. 29. They could also play at the New York Giants on Dec. 9.

Saints focusing on rematch with 49ers this Sunday

Vitt said after Wednesday's practice that he did not know anything about Tagliabue's schedule and declined comment, saying he's focused on getting ready for the 49ers.

Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said the Saints cannot afford to be distracted by the possibility that they will lose Vilma and Smith late in the season, but he did not diminish the importance of the two players to the Saints' defense.

''These guys have been here for years and they're kind of like the foundation of this team,'' Lofton said. ''So having those guys being able to play has mentally and physically been a boost to this defense and it's great to have those guys out there.''

None of the players have served a game of their suspensions yet, though Vilma was barred from attending Saints training camp before Goodell's initial rulings were vacated during Week 1 of the regular season. Vilma initially was suspended the entire 2012 season and Smith for four games.

The two other players punished are former Saints: Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now on injured reserve, and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Hargrove initially was suspended eight games, but that later was reduced to seven with credit given for the first five games he missed as a free agent. Fujita initially was suspended three games and that was later reduced to one game.

Facing resistance from the NFL Players Association and lawyers separately representing Vilma, who had argued that Goodell could not be objective, the commissioner removed himself as arbitrator in the bounty matter and appointed Tagliabue, his predecessor, in his place on Oct. 19.

Tagliabue noted in his most recent memo that other witnesses could be scheduled. Tagliabue also said he expects to decide by Monday whether to allow the Saints' personnel file on Cerullo to be included as evidence.

Players have argued that Cerullo was the NFL's primary source of information about the Saints' performance pool. They've also argued that Cerullo's credibility is in question because he was fired by the club after the 2009-10 season and he had accused the club of preventing him from getting a job on another NFL coaching staff.

The NFL investigation concluded that Saints players were rewarded for hits that knocked targeted opposing players out of games from 2009-2011. The league said there was evidence that the Saints placed bounties on star quarterbacks including Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers. An audiotape of Williams before last year's divisional playoff game against the 49ers indicated the Saints were instructed to hurt several 49ers players during that game.

Saints players and coaches have acknowledged they had a pool that paid rewards for big plays including interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks and big hits, similar to programs other teams have had across the league for generations. However, they say no one ever intended to injure an opposing player.

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