Saints can clinch playoff berth

Published 1:11 am Sunday, December 17, 2006

It seems the Saints’ storybook return to post-Katrina New Orleans has been so inspiring, there may be an additional chapter in the works.

The playoffs.

Who would have thought precisely one year ago this scenario would be upon us?

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The Saints were displaced to San Antonio and struggling through a 3-13 season. New Orleans and the Louisiana Superdome were so beat up it was unclear if the city would ever host an NFL game again.

On Sunday, in a rebuilt and sold-out Superdome, the Saints (9-4) can clinch the NFC South with a victory over the Washington Redskins (4-9). Doing so would add an NFL playoff game to a string of disaster recovery highlights here that have included the return of Mardi Gras parades; the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; a Saints victory on “Monday Night Football” when the dome reopened; and soon, the return of the Sugar Bowl.

“This is a huge opportunity for us because we get to do it in front of our home fans,” said Saints running back Deuce McAllister, who has yet to experience the playoffs himself in an otherwise illustrious six seasons as a pro. “If we can handle our business, it will be in front of our home crowd. They’ll get to enjoy it with us, so I think that’s a little added emphasis for us as players. This is obviously super special for them and special for us, as well.”

Before the season, the Redskins would have been the favorites in this game. They were coming off a second-round playoff appearance and had mostly the same players, as well as Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, back for another run.

The Saints were coming off of a season of upheaval that included the firing of coach Jim Haslett, followed by major roster turnover as rookie coach Sean Payton sought to remake the team.

A total reversal of fortune has ensued. The Redskins are error-prone and out of the running, and if there was an award for squandering potential, they might have been the front-runner for it. For Gibbs, a loss on Sunday would match his coaching career high for a season, which was set two seasons ago in the first year of his return, when Washington went 6-10.

The Saints might be up for some awards, too. Payton is an obvious candidate for coach of the year. Drew Brees, who’s thrown for an NFL-leading 4,033 yards and has 25 touchdown passes, is vying for MVP. Wide receiver Marques Colston (59 catches, 917 yards, 7 TDs) and running back Reggie Bush (1,288 total yards, 7 TDs) could end up with offensive rookie of the year honors.

“It’s not a pretty sight for us,” Gibbs said after watching film of the Saints. “Right now, they’re playing the best ball of anybody in the NFC. They’re on a roll. … They have the No. 1 offense in the league. They are very good on defense and are all over the place. … They got a lot of weapons and do a great job and they are athletic.”

A bright spot for the Redskins has been the emergence of young quarterback Jason Campbell, a second-year pro out of Auburn. In four starts, he has completed 51.6 percent of his throws for 713 yards and six TDs. However, he also threw a pair of costly interceptions in a 21-19 loss to Philadelphia last weekend.

“Each game I play is another learning experience,” Campbell said. “In the second half against the Eagles, I wasn’t going out there trying to play tentative or scared to make throws. I was going out there to try and win.”

Washington running back Ladell Betts has set back-to-back career highs in yardage in the past two weeks (171 against the Eagles) in place of Clinton Portis, lost for the season with a broken hand.

But the extent to which either Campbell or Betts will get reliable blocking this Sunday is uncertain. Right tackle Jon Jansen was having trouble walking because of an ailing calf muscle, while center Casey Rabach broke his hand last Sunday. It wasn’t clear this week if either would play.

That didn’t diminish Rabach’s excitement for the game.

“Being a spoiler is always great. Everybody wants to be the underdog, to be a spoiler of a team that’s red hot,” Rabach said. “If you can’t be in the show yourself, why not try to ruin the playoffs for everybody else? It’ll be fun.”

Payton, meanwhile, seemed determined not to let his team experience a victory hangover coming off its 42-17 beating of the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys. Sending an apparent message about his serious approach, he held practice in full pads Wednesday for only the second time in a month. “This is an area that has not had a lot to cheer about in a while with this team not being here a year ago,” Payton said. “You feel that added commitment and responsibility. Our players have embraced it. The first thing that we can do, aside from any personal charitable contribution or work, is to play better football. That was one of the things that we first talked about when we went to training camp in Mississippi, our commitment to doing the little things right and giving this city something to be proud of.”