Saints playing for playoff bye against Giants

Published 10:06 pm Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The New Orleans Saints are looking for a little time off before starting the playoffs.

The New York Giants want the opposite — to avoid time off and make the playoffs.

The Giants (7-7) and Saints (9-5) will have much at stake at Giants Stadium on Sunday in what will be the final home game for retiring New York halfback Tiki Barber.

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The feel-good Saints have already won the NFC South title and they could clinch a first-round bye with a win and a loss by Dallas to Philadelphia on Monday night.

New York, which started the season 6-2, is currently tied with Atlanta for the NFC’s second wild-card berth. The Giants have the tiebreaker with the Falcons, but there is a way they can win their final two games and miss the playoffs.

“Given what the NFC has been like, I can’t say anything is the last chance,” said the 31-year-old Barber, who is retiring at the height of his career. “We have our backs against the wall, clearly. Sitting at .500 we are still in the playoffs right now, but things have to happen. Most importantly, we have to win.”

The mood of both teams shows how much things have changed over the past year.

The last time the Saints came here to play the Giants, they were another victim of Hurricane Katrina. The killer storm forced them to play a “home” game at Giants Stadium in September in what would be a disastrous 2005 season. New York posted a 27-10 “road” win en route to capturing the NFC East.

The Saints are now part of the rebirth of New Orleans. They have gone from also-ran (3-13) to division champion under new coach Sean Payton and a potent lineup led by quarterback Drew Brees and rookie halfback Reggie Bush.

If there is a concern about them, it popped up last week in a 16-10 loss to the Redskins (5-9). That dropped New Orleans into a tie with Dallas (9-5) for the No. 2 seed in the conference. The Saints beat the Cowboys two weeks ago, so they hold the tiebreaker.

“That game was a little bit of a wakeup call,” said Brees, who has an NFL-leading 4,240 yards passing and an NFC-best 25 TD passes. “It showed us we have to tighten and try and get back our edge. It’s better that it happened now when we can still recover from it than happening in the when we couldn’t.”

After getting off to a surprisingly quick start this year, the Giants have found ways to lose the close games they won a year ago. Injuries to receiver Amani Toomer (knee) and 2005 Pro Bowl defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan have played a big part in the slide.

Umenyiora returned to the lineup three weeks ago and Strahan appears ready to play this weekend for the first time since spraining a foot on Nov. 5. New York is 2-12 in the games he has missed over the past three seasons.

Linebacker Antonio Pierce can’t explain why New York isn’t making the plays this season.

“It’s one of those things where coach always says your stars have to be superstars and your superstars have to be Hall of Famers,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do that and it’s just not working out. The season is not over. Hopefully, there will be a week where we can get that type of performance out of a lot of guys.”

This will be a homecoming for Payton, who was Giants offensive coordinator from 2000 — the year they went to the Super Bowl — to 2002.