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Eagles try to maintain intensity against Saints

It’s one thing to get fired up when your fans are burning the jersey of a despised former receiver in the stadium parking lot.

This weekend brings a stark change in environment for the Philadelphia Eagles, who go from their inspired victory over visiting Terrell Owens and the rival Dallas Cowboys to playing in New Orleans against a team that is very difficult to hate right now.

“If you’re going to be a good football team, then you have to be able to put things in the past and move on. And that is what we are doing with Dallas,” Philadelphia coach Andy Reid assured this week. “That game is over, finished. … It’s been over for awhile now and we’re focusing in on a team that has continued to open up eyes across the league.”

This season the Saints (4-1) have been heavy on discipline and low on smack talk, saving their collective breath for words of hope during community service outings in this storm-battered region that has long loved its NFL team almost unconditionally.

New Orleans is 2-0 in the refurbished Louisiana Superdome, where the Saints seem to ride a wave of emotion fueled by sellout crowds looking to invigorate lives often defined by the tedium of rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.

“They treat every weekend like it’s their last,” Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb remarked. “We all remember what happened with Katrina. … Their team has been taking a lot of pride in every game of just providing excitement for the fans for the three hours that they’re in there. And we just want to provide some more excitement with it and try and come out and win.”

The Eagles (4-1) are favored by oddsmakers, albeit by less than a touchdown. The Saints hardly act offended, even if they’re still trying to prove their fast start is no fluke.

“Obviously, if we want to get respect in this league, we’ve got to beat teams like the Eagles,” Saints running back Reggie Bush said. “It’s going to be a big game for us.”

Each team has a couple of players who spent 2005 with the opposing squad.

Eagles defensive end Darren Howard rode the Saints’ bench late last season with his departure for free agency all but certain. Former Saints receiver Donte’ Stallworth was traded shortly after this summer’s training camp to the Eagles for a 2007 draft pick and linebacker Mark Simoneau. And longtime Eagles defensive lineman Hollis Thomas was sent to New Orleans in a draft-day trade last spring after asking out of Philadelphia, where his playing time dropped last season — a fact he blamed on his failing to meet a contract incentive.

Thomas has bolstered the Saints’ rushing defense while applying steady pressure in passing situations.

“Hollis is playing as good as I have seen Hollis play,” Reid said. “It looks like he dropped a couple pounds and he is moving around and I think he is playing real good football.”

Thomas downplayed his reunion with the only other team for which he has suited up in a decade-long career.

“Everybody thinks I have the day circled on my calendar. I don’t,” Thomas said. “It’s just another game we have to come out and try to win. I’ve been playing for 10 years and I played with the same team. This is my first time doing this, so I guess I’ll have to let you know after the game how it felt.”

It may not feel too good if McNabb continues his recently stellar play, spreading passes to various receivers and versatile running back Brian Westbrook in throwing for 1,602 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“They’re explosive,” said Saints safety Omar Stoutmire, who has spent much of his career in the NFC East and will make his first start this year because of a season-ending knee injury to rookie Roman Harper.

“Westbrook — he can take the ball and go to the house any time he gets his hands on it. Of course, Donovan, he can throw the ball” far down field on the run, Stoutmire said. “They have a lot of weapons.”

Westbrook has been hampered by a sore knee, but scored a touchdown against Dallas and practiced this week.

New Orleans counters with a balanced offense featuring Bush and fellow running back Deuce McAllister, who ran for 123 yards and a touchdown last Sunday against Tampa Bay.

And while Philadelphia fields a blitz-happy defense that already has 23 sacks, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has made up for an inexperienced offensive line by getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately.

“I try to take pride in not taking sacks,” said Brees, who has thrown for 1,234 yards and five touchdowns. “When you see a defense that’s getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, that’s getting a lot of QB hits, it just heightens that awareness.”

Then again, it’s easier to avoid sacks when there’s the option of dumping the ball off to Bush, who has a league-leading 34 receptions.

Bush said the Saints intend to limit pressure on Brees so he doesn’t have to dump the ball off as often.

“But if it does come to that, obviously I’m happy,” Bush said.