The Saints believe they're headed in the right direction after winning four of their last five games, but they'll certainly know a lot more after the next two outings. The road to getting into playoff contention will take the Saints, now 5-5 after last week's 23-20 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons, to Philadelphia and Washington the next two weeks. A pair of wins over the Eagles and Redskins would leave the Saints in pretty good shape going into the final month of the regular season, but even a split would leave them at 6-6 going into a season-ending four-game stretch that will see them play three times in the Superdome. It's a path few could imagine the Saints taking when they opened the season with a 1-4 record. Reeling from three consecutive losses and in a deep, deep hole at that point, coach Jim Haslett's team bounced back nicely. But Haslett knows it wasn't easy, and it showed as the Saints slowly climbed back to respectability. "When you're 1-4, it takes a while," Haslett said. "It seems that way especially with the bye week (Nov. 9) being in the middle of it. "Right now, we are just 50-50," he said. "We are an average football team. Hopefully, we can continue to keep playing well, taking care of the football, playing good defense, and we can get above .500." Sunday's game against the surging Eagles (7-3) is extremely important because it would get the Saints above the .500 mark for the first time this year. It would also bring the Saints closer to the Eagles in the overall NFC standings and give them the tiebreaker in the event they tie for a wild-card berth. Which is most important to Haslett. "They are one of the wild card teams right now and have a chance to win their division," Haslett said. "They are a good team. Going up there to play in that kind of environment will be a great challenge for us." Sunday's game will send two of the NFL's hottest teams against each other as the Eagles have won seven of their last eight games and the Saints have taken four of their last five. "They're a hot team and they've won a bunch of games in a row," Haslett said. "They started off 0-2 and have put a string together. It's going to be a great challenge for our team. They have been to the NFC Championship game the last couple of years." And while it seems like the Saints are catching the Eagles, who have defeated the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants the last two weeks, at a bad time, Haslett is confident his team is playing good ball as well. "We have played pretty well, we have played pretty solid," he said. "But they are a well-coached team and they're a veteran team. They have quality people at every position. This will be a great challenge for our team. This is an important game for both football teams." SERIES HISTORY: 22nd meeting. The Eagles lead 13-8, but they've won the past four games in the series with the last Saints' win coming in Veterans Stadium in 1991. The Eagles also hold a 1-0 edge in the postseason, taking a 36-20 win over the Saints in a 1992 wild-card matchup in the Superdome.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Saints running back Deuce McAllister, who set a club record with 237 total yards from scrimmage in a win over the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, also did something only one other back has done in NFL history.
With 173 rushing yards and nine receptions for 64 yards, McAllister joined San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players in league history to rush for at least 170 yards and catch at least nine passes in a game.
Tomlinson rushed for 220 yards and caught 11 passes against the Denver Broncos on Dec. 1, 2002.
--McAllister will try to extend his streak of 100-yard rushing games to eight in Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles. In his seven-week streak, McAllister has rushed for 841 yards on 170 carries for a 4.9 average with five TDs. He also has 27 catches for 210 yards in that span, giving him 1,051 total yards from scrimmage and an average of 150.1 yards per game since Week 4.
--Slowed by a bruised bone and strained ligaments in his left knee, wide receiver Joe Horn did not start a regular-season game for the first time in his four seasons with the Saints last Sunday. Horn had started 57 consecutive games before sitting out the first play from scrimmage against the Falcons, but played sparingly and had three catches for 21 yards. He is questionable for Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles. Horn was sidelined for a divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in 2000 because of a leg injury, but had started every regular-season game until last week.
--McAllister lost two fumbles at crucial times in last Sunday's win over the Falcons, a fact that was not lost on coach Jim Haslett. "I've seen great running backs go years without fumbling," Haslett said. "Deuce has the ability and the strength, so there's no reason why he should ever fumble. That's a learning experience for him. He felt bad about it. He's a good kid."
--The Saints have a better record on the road than they do at home since Haslett took over in 2000. They're 13-16 in the Superdome under Haslett and are 18-11 on the road. The Saints lost their first three road games this season, but have rebounded to beat Atlanta and Tampa Bay in their last two.
--With a 23-20 overtime win over the Falcons last Sunday, the Saints improved to 6-8 in overtime games all-time -- including a 1-1 mark this season. The Saints lost to the Carolina Panthers, 23-20, in overtime on Oct. 26 in the Superdome. The two overtime games also equals the most the Saints have ever played in one season. The only other time it happened was in 1983 when they beat the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles in an extra period.
--The Saints have named wide receiver/kick returner Michael Lewis as their 2003 Man of the Year for his charitable contributions to the community. Now eligible for the 2003 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, Lewis is requested for appearances more than any other Saints player, according to the Saints Community Relations Department. Lewis made 14 charitable/community visits during the 17-week NFL season in 2002 and is on a similar pace again this year. He visits schools, hospitals, fan clubs, treatment centers, elderly homes, and even served as grand marshal for a local university's homecoming parade.
--Two more former players were inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame last week as the club honored guard Jim Dombrowski and defensive end Wayne Martin, two stalwarts from their teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dombrowski and Martin were No. 1 draft picks who each went on to play 11 seasons for the Saints. Dombrowski was with the team from 1986-96 and Martin played for them from 1989-99.
--Grace Benson, the wife of Saints owner Tom Benson, died early Tuesday following an 18-year battle with Parkinson's disease.
A funeral service for Mrs. Benson, 76, was held in New Orleans on Wednesday morning. The entire organization, including coaches and players, attended the service. Burial will be in San Antonio, Texas.
BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- Career game-winning field goals by Saints kicker John Carney in the final two minutes or in overtime. Carney has won the last two games, beating the Tampa Bay Bucs with a 47-yarder on Nov. 2 and the Atlanta Falcons with a 36-yarder in overtime last Sunday. QUOTE TO NOTE: "That's something that you have to deal with at this level. We will deal with it the best that we can. We will try to manage our guys and put them in the right positions, but they need to take care of their bodies and be as healthy as they can be on Sundays." -- Saints coach Jim Haslett on his growing injury list.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The loss of tight end Ernie Conwell to a fractured right ankle in last week's win over the Falcons was a big one for two reasons.
He was the team's third-leading receiver with 26 catches for 290 yards and two TDs, but he was also a big contributor in the running game as a solid blocker -- both on the line and in the backfield -- who helped Deuce McAllister to seven straight 100-yard rushing games.
"It's a big blow," offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy said. "Ernie has given us the consistency that we haven't had at the position. We're just going to have to play to the strengths of the other guys."
Three-year veteran Boo Williams will start on Sunday against the Eagles, while veteran Walter Rasby will move into the second spot. Rookie Zach Hilton, who made the roster this summer as an undrafted free agent, will likely play after being inactive for the last six games.
--TE Ernie Conwell fractured his right ankle and tore a ligament against the Falcons and had surgery Tuesday. Conwell is expected to be out for the rest of the regular season.
--LG Kendyl Jacox, who did not play Sunday because of a right knee injury, had arthroscopic surgery on Monday to remove a bone spur that broke loose from the knee. He is expected to be out two-to-three weeks.
--LG Montrae Holland, the Saints' fourth-round draft pick this season, will make his second NFL start Sunday in place of Kendyl Jacox. Saints coach Jim Haslett said Holland did a nice job in the win over the Falcons.
--RG LeCharles Bentley re-injured his hyperextended left knee in the first half of Sunday's game and did not play in the second half. He did not practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable for Sunday.
--RG Spencer Folau will make his first start of the season if LeCharles Bentley is not able to play Sunday.
--WR Joe Horn played only sparingly Sunday because of a bone bruise and strained ligaments in his left knee. He was able to practice Wednesday, but is questionable for Sunday.
--DE/DT Willie Whitehead has a strained right MCL and is listed as questionable for Sunday. He did not participate in Wednesday's practice.
--WR Donte Stallworth, who played last week for the first time since straining his left quadriceps muscle on Oct. 19, twisted his ankle against the Falcons and is questionable after missing practice Wednesday.
--SLB Darrin Smith returned to practice Wednesday, but is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with a groin injury.
--LCB Dale Carter, who missed last week's game with a strained left quadriceps muscle, practiced Wednesday. He is questionable for the Eagles game.
--SS Jay Bellamy is probable because of a sore back, but should be ready for Sunday's game.
--RB James Fenderson did not practice Wednesday and is doubtful for Sunday with a sprained ligament in his left foot.
The Saints have to keep doing what they do best, and that's run the ball early and often. Deuce McAllister has plowed his way to seven consecutive 100-yard rushing games and getting him started will be a key -- especially since the receiving corps is hobbled by injuries to wideouts Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth and tight end Ernie Conwell. On defense, the Saints worked hard throughout the offseason trying to get enough speed to match up better against the more mobile quarterbacks in the league -- like the Eagles' Donovan McNabb -- so keeping the running lanes clogged and keeping him in check will be the main goal.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Saints secondary vs. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. After a sluggish start, the Saints secondary has come on strong the last five weeks and has risen to a tie for fifth in the league rankings against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have completed only 44.0 percent of their passes with four TDs and five interceptions against the Saints the last five games and that kind of stingy defense will be necessary if they expect to keep McNabb from having a huge day.
The Saints defense was ravaged by injuries early this season, and now it seems like it's the offense's turn. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy was limited in last week's win over the Falcons because of a number of injuries to his perimeter players -- most notably wide receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth and tight end Ernie Conwell -- and also starting guards Kendyl Jacox and LeCharles Bentley. While Horn and Stallworth are likely to be limited against the Eagles, Conwell and Jacox are out and Bentley is questionable.