2003 RANKINGS: Saints: offense 18th (15th rush, 23rd pass); defense 17th (24th rush, 12th pass). Falcons: offense 29th (23rd rush, 25th pass); defense 32nd (29th rush, 31st pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Kurt Kittner is making his first career start for the Falcons in large part because coach Dan Reeves wants to cut down on the offense's turnovers. Benched Doug Johnson had 10 INTs in six games and the hope is Kittner will read defenses better. Atlanta also wants to get RB Warrick Dunn more involved after T.J. Duckett saw featured duty the past two games. Defensively, the Falcons will focus on Saints RB Deuce McAllister. Atlanta hasn't been able to stop the run all season, and McAllister has three consecutive 100-yard games. The Falcons' struggling secondary will also have its hands full against a deep group of Saints receivers.
FAST FACTS: Saints: The offense is ranked first in the league with a 51.2 third-down conversion percentage (44 of 86). ... The team is 11-4 when QB Aaron Brooks has a passer rating of 100 or better. He has two such games in his past three against Atlanta. Falcons: Coach Dan Reeves will make his sixth attempt to win his 200th career game. ... TE Alge Crumpler leads all tight ends with 316 receiving yards.
PREDICTED SCORE: Saints 30, Falcons 17
--SLB Sedrick Hodge remains out with a hairline fracture in his lower right leg, but is ahead of schedule in his rehab. He will likely be out another two-to-four weeks.
--DE Darren Howard, who had surgery on his dislocated right wrist on Sept. 8, will have his cast removed Monday and be re-examined. Howard hopes to return to the lineup for a Nov. 16 game with the Falcons in the Superdome.
--G Montrae Holland, a backup, is listed as questionable with a foot injury. He was injured on the opening kickoff of the game with the Bears.
--LDE Charles Grant, who has been getting a lot of double-teams with RDE Darren Howard sidelined, started on the right side against the Bears and had two sacks and two forced fumbles.
--DE Willie Whitehead, who had started three straight games at right end, moved to the left side last Sunday.
--The Saints used Orlando Ruff at middle linebacker for the second straight week in their 4-3 base defense and will likely start him again in Sunday's matchup with the Falcons.
--MLB Darrin Smith will again start at strong side linebacker in place of the injured Sedrick Hodge.
--WR Donte Stallworth will likely be the primary punt and kickoff returner again if Michael Lewis can't go on Sunday. Stallworth fumbled two kickoffs against the Bears, but the Saints retained possession on both.
--SS Gerald McBurrows, who has missed the past two games because of a pinched nerve in his neck, practiced for the second straight day Thursday. Although he still lacks some strength in his left shoulder, he's virtually certain to start Sunday against the Saints.
--WR LaTarance Dunbar missed practice again Thursday, and will not play for the Falcons on Sunday against New Orleans because of a hamstring pull. He doesn't factor in the receiver rotation, anyway, and has been a small factor on special teams.
--LG Travis Claridge, who has a torn muscle in his left shoulder and some tissue damage at the bottom of his right quadriceps that is worse, tried to return to practice Thursday, but was unable to finish because of the leg injury. He was downgraded to doubtful for Sunday's game against the Saints. Roberto Garza will replace Claridge.
--OL Roberto Garza will make his first start of the season Sunday for the Falcons, filling in at left guard for injured starter Travis Claridge.
--OL Martin Bibla, a second-year pro who has not been active for a game this season, is likely to be the Falcons' backup guard/center Sunday against the Saints because shoulder and leg injuries to starting LG Travis Claridge have elevated backup G/C Roberto Garza to the starting lineup.
--S Siddeeq Shabazz, claimed off waivers from the Raiders two weeks ago, isn't likely to play much if at all on defense Sunday when the Falcons play the Saints, but coaches like his ability on special teams so far. They also like his size and speed, and think he has a chance to contribute on defense eventually.
--CB Juran Bolden practiced again Thursday for the Falcons after coming off the PUP list Tuesday. There has been no indication yet that team officials will add him to the roster in time for Sunday's game against the Saints, but he has appeared comfortable so far in two practices. Bolden tore his right patellar tendon Jan. 11 in a playoff game at Philadelphia.
--SS Cory Hall still did not practice Thursday, and will miss his third straight game after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He has played in just two of six games so far.
INSIDE THE SAINTS CAMP
Saints wide receiver Joe Horn stuck to his guns Wednesday and stood by comments he made during a national radio show regarding fans who wear paper bags over their heads.
In an interview on Sporting News Radio earlier this week, Horn expressed his disgust with fans who choose to wear paper bags over their heads in the Superdome.
"I want them to wear the bags when we win, too," Horn said during the radio interview. "I don't like cowardly fans. To lower your self-esteem and wear a bag around your damned head is embarrassing.
"What if I wore a bag on my head when your little nephew came and asked me for an autograph?" he said. "I know down here they have bags under their seats just waiting to break them out. At least 20,000 of them do."
Horn said Wednesday the only thing he regretted was saying that 20,000 people had bags under their seats, a number that riled up some hardcore fans.
"It was just a number I was throwing out," he said. "It may have been only two people, I was just frustrated at the time knowing some people would do that."
He contended that the ones who choose to do so aren't fans.
"I don't know why you (media) keep saying `fans,' " Horn said. "They're not fans. The ones that wear bags over their damned heads are not fans.
"I don't care if they hate me because I said they're not real fans," he added. "The real fans are the people that when you lose, they shake your hand and have your back. And when we win, they jump up and yell."