Dome Field: Saints Anxious to Silence Doubters, Excite Fans
NEW ORLEANS -- Since the New Orleans Saints just brought back running back Deuce McAllister, why stop there? Got digits for linebackers Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling? Can quarterbacks Archie Manning and Bobby Hebert still dial it?
The Saints (13-3) insist that McAllister -- their all-time rushing leader -- was activated simply to lead the team onto the field against the Arizona Cardinals (11-6) in divisional playoff action here on Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.
The hope is it will provide a feel-good moment for their fretting fans and a jolt to the current players' psyches.
The good news here is we are going to see real soon if the Saints will play like the team that sped to a 13-0 mark or the one that collapsed with three straight regular-season losses to Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina. We will see if the Saints, who turned it on, then turned it off, can flip that switch.
They enter talking a good game.
"We have a body of work that shows we know how to play at a high level offensively," quarterback Drew Brees said.
"I'm pretty confident we will be ready and I think our players will be [confident], too,'' coach Sean Payton said.
Running back Pierre Thomas kept it a little more real.
"We have to show everybody that we can bounce back,'' Thomas said.
Most of all, they have to prove that to themselves.
Brees led this team with a 70.6 completion percentage and 34 touchdown passes en route to helping the Saints to a franchise-record 510 points. The running game behind backs Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell improved the team's rushing ranking from No. 22 a season ago to No. 6 this campaign. The Saints led the league in offense for the third time in four seasons.
It was defense, however, under new coordinator Gregg Williams and new safety Darren Sharper that made the Saints legitimate this season. This defense ranked second in the NFL in takeaways with 39, a number that included 29 interceptions. Sharper grabbed nine of those picks, scored on three of them and set an NFL record in interception return yards with 376.
More good news? The Saints are the NFC's No. 1 seed and NFC teams in that position are 17-2 in their last 19 divisional-round games.
More bad news? No team that finished the regular season with three consecutive losses has ever won a Super Bowl. You talk of these numbers around Payton, and it is a wonder he does not insert earplugs.
"Those are statistics, not trends,'' Payton said. "There are so many numbers around, and we have heard them all year long."
The Saints have heard that they can't do this or can't do that and have never won a Super Bowl, and that the long layoff and the losing skid means this team could get rolled by the Cardinals.
The league is watching.
"You really have to wonder if they have lost momentum and how they are going to recreate it,'' an NFL general manager said. "Can you really turn it off and on like that? It's the ultimate question now concerning them. I think the key thing is they have lost some of that swagger in Arizona's eyes.
"They play in a great environment for them in that dome, and that should help. And a lot of it boils down to Brees. He seems to be able to maintain his composure when people around him are losing theirs."
The Saints are counting on a fast start -- a pile of points early to erase all doubts.
Payton likely is hoping his team wins the coin toss, and that his offense can immediately take the ball and shove it right down the Cardinals' throats. His team will work against an Arizona defense that just allowed 45 points to Green Bay last week. And that was in the Cardinals' stadium.
He has to see plenty that he can pluck against the Cardinals' defense with his fast team in this loud dome. And in matchups like these, where he has enjoyed plenty of time to scheme, Payton often shines. We will see the Saints push the ball vertically early and Brees on the move, on the edges, looking to gobble rather than nibble.
The Saints remember that after their bye week they hammered the Giants here, 48-27. It is one example that proves that they reload with an extra week of preparation.
But these are the playoffs, a place most of these Saints have seldom experienced (their last three playoff seasons were in 1992, 2000 and 2006). And these are the Cardinals, a team with offensive firepower of its own behind quarterback Kurt Warner's delicious release and coach Ken Whisenhunt's bold approach.
The work of Payton and Whisenhunt -- both head coaches who call their own offensive plays -- should be spectacular. Both have the weapons, creativity and will to turn this game into a tit-for-tat, big-play, light-up-the-scoreboard affair.
If the Saints start fast, they win this game. If the Saints crawl early, the Cardinals should win it.
"The good news is,'' said Payton, "we're going to see here real soon."