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New Orleans Saints News



TAMPA, FLA. -- For the first time in two seasons, the Saints have managed to lift their heads above water, only to discover that the shore is still miles away.

The Saints put on their best offensive performance since the 2006 season Monday night, dominating the Green Bay Packers 51-29 in the Superdome. The reward was the first back-to-back wins of the season and a 6-5 record -- the first time they've been better than .500 in two seasons, not including their season-opening victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers .

But it didn't prove anything for a team that has endured an on-again, off-again relationship with success. The real test will come this afternoon in Tampa Bay on a short week, against the NFC South-leading Buccaneers (8-3), one of the hottest teams in Football.

"Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who said he hopes his team is finally hitting its stride. "We're hitting a tough stretch here. We're going to the division leader at their place. And we beat them in Week 1 (at the Superdome), so I'm sure they feel like they've got something to prove to us.

"We know they're a much better team than when we played them Week 1. As are we. But we'll see what kind of a team we are after this week."

Technically this isn't a "must-win" game for the Saints with five weeks remaining. Chances are, they can still earn a playoff spot by winning four of their last five games to finish 10-6.

But it is awfully important. The Saints are in last place in the stacked NFC South, behind Tampa Bay, Carolina (8-3) and Atlanta (7-4) -- all of whom they'll face again before the season is done.

Playoff spots could come down to head-to-head tiebreakers or division records, so these divisional games mean a little more.

"We're 6-5 and we're still in fourth place in our division. That's just the nature of our league," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "In other divisions we might be tied for first. But we're not in other divisions. We're in the NFC South.

"The next two to three weeks will clear things up for all of us, and you'll begin to get an idea of who's contending and who is not. But right now, as you look at the number of teams in the NFC, there's a lot of them competing for spots, and we understand that the margin for error becomes smaller."

The Saints would love to redo early-season games against fellow NFC playoff contenders Washington and Minnesota, when they blew fourth-quarter leads and lost in the final minutes. But the more disturbing losses came when the Saints were trampled at Carolina, 30-7, and trounced at Atlanta, 34-20.

Those games implied that the Saints belong in the bottom of the division's pecking order. They need to reverse that today in Tampa if they want to prove they even belong in this race.

Recent history doesn't bode well for the Saints, though. So far this year, the home team has won every game in the NFC South's head-to-head matchups. And the Saints have struggled on the road, losing their first four road games before winning at Kansas City two weeks ago.

"I think much is made of the road, away and home games," Payton said. "But in the end, you've got to be able to play well, regardless of whether it's home or away. You know, I thought we played well away in London (technically a home game against San Diego). I thought we played well away in Kansas City.

"So now we've got to play well against a real good team. And this is a real good team right now."

Brees had one of his better games against Tampa Bay in Week 1, throwing for 343 yards and three touchdowns. But since then, the Buccaneers have allowed only nine touchdown passes. They rank second in the NFL in passing defense, allowing 174.6 yards per game, and fourth overall, allowing 274.7 yards per game.

"We're pretty good on defense," Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said when asked about trying to slow down the Saints' offense. "It's not like we're chopped liver."

The Saints were manhandled a bit by the Panthers and Falcons on the road. Both teams disrupted the Saints' high-powered passing game by getting consistent pressure on Brees up front. Also, Carolina jumped the passing lanes and Atlanta jammed the receivers at the line of scrimmage.

The Buccaneers have long succeeded on defense by keeping the ball in front of them, keeping big plays to a minimum and requiring passers to be patient. Historically, they have caused some frustration for Brees, twice holding him to less than 180 passing yards.

But Brees found his groove in Week 1 of this season, even hitting on some of those big plays -- an 84-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson, a 42-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Bush and a 39-yard touchdown pass to David Patten.

And he has been just as locked in all season long.

"Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFL," said Tampa Bay center Jeff Faine, who admits he is biased after having played with Brees in New Orleans the past two seasons. "Even with all the credit he gets, even with all the accolades he gets, in my mind he's still underrated. I don't think that a lot of people realize what he does behind closed doors, what he does to prepare.

"He makes great throws on Sundays, but the man works incredibly, incredibly hard. I'd never beat him to the facility. He never left before I left the facility. He's an incredible, incredible worker and he's the drive for that offense and for that team."

Brees should have a full complement of weapons at his disposal this afternoon, with Bush expected to return after missing the past four games with a knee injury. Receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey also both appear close to 100 percent after struggling with injuries early in the season. And former backups like receiver Lance Moore and tailback Pierre Thomas have stepped into prime roles.

The prevailing mood in the Saints' locker room this week was the tide is starting to turn for them.

"We've put a couple good weeks together and we continue to jell together, and it seems like everyone's getting on the right page at the right time," guard Jahri Evans said. "And you know, our backs are against the wall."

That might just be the perfect recipe for success. At least, that's what the Saints are counting on.

"We've got some momentum, confidence, and urgency," Brees said. "You know, this time of year, there's no, 'Hey, we'll get 'em next time' anymore."

. . . . . . .

Mike Triplett can be reached at mtriplett@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3405.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 30, 2008

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Josh McCown Name: Josh McCown
Position: QB
Age: 29
Experience: 7 years
College: Sam Houston State
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