Saints meets winless Rams

Published 12:30 am Sunday, November 11, 2007

When the Saints appeared down and out during their 0-4 start, players showed up at practice one day to find a wagon parked behind the corner of one end zone at their indoor field.

Still there to this day and adorned with a drum set and brass instruments, it’s a bandwagon, if you will.

“The significance of that is, after we lost our third game, people had written us off,” said Saints running back Reggie Bush. “We had to jell together as a team, come together. Once we got back on pace, we had to stay close.”

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Saints coaches also had players watch highlights of the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox rallying for a historic comeback after dropping the first three games of the American League championship series to their longtime nemesis, the New York Yankees.

The message, fullback Mike Karney explained, was that special teams can rise above scenarios even bleaker than opening a 16-game NFL season with four losses.

Lately, the Saints (4-4) have been as hot as those Red Sox became their comeback against the Yankees. They’ve won four straight, and remarkably are in position to tie for first place in the NFC South on Sunday if they beat the winless St. Louis Rams (0-8).

So guess what props showed up around Saints headquarters this week? Rat traps.

The Saints’ bandwagon is filling up again, their offense has been piling up yards and points like the team that went to the NFC title game last season, and victory this Sunday has been declared a near certainty by fans and NFL analysts alike.

If there was ever a “trap game” for New Orleans, this would be it.

“These are the types of teams that are scary because they’ll do anything to get a win and they want to ruin your season,” Bush said. “They are going to do everything and anything they can from trick plays to maybe onside kicks. These are the trap games that you really have to focus on more than the good teams coming in.”

Whenever coaches prepare to play a struggling team, they routinely say their opponent is better than its record. In the Rams’ case, Payton hinges that argument on the fact that St. Louis has some established offensive threats, such as receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, quarterback Marc Bulger and running back Steven Jackson.

Jackson, who missed four games with groin and back problems, returned for limited action against Cleveland two weeks ago and is expected to be ready with St. Louis coming out of its bye week.

“They haven’t come away with a win, but if you go back and look at this team in the first half of a number of games, they’ve had leads, they’ve been close, they’ve been tied with teams going into the third quarter,” Payton said. “So this will be a battle from the beginning.”

Rams second-year coach Scott Linehan said his players returned in relatively good spirits and health from the bye week. Jackson still has back pain at times, but is starting to look more like his Pro Bowl self, Linehan said.

Bulger, who missed two games in early October with a pair of broken ribs, said he was close to 100 percent and that swelling was down in his bruised right knee.

“Other than our record, which can’t be any worse, we’re doing fine,” Linehan said. “We had a great two weeks. And we’ve been pretty competitive in all the games, you know, considering some of the adversity we’ve had. I think guys have hung in there pretty good. That’s the only way we can look at it is an eight-game season now, and focus on this New Orleans game. If we can put together a complete game in all three phases, we might have a chance.”

The Rams, in fact, had a good shot to win three games in particular. They lost 17-16 to San Francisco, 34-31 to Arizona and 27-20 to the Browns. Bulger has thrown for over 300 yards twice this season and Jackson rushed for 115 yards in Week 3 before getting hurt.

“They’re one of those teams that probably can explode at any time, given all the Pro Bowl players they have at the skill positions,” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said.

The game will also be a special one to a couple members of Linehan’s staff, which has had two weeks to get a game plan ready.

Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was Payton’s predecessor and called the Louisiana Superdome his home field from 2000 until two days before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Once a coach of the year with New Orleans, Haslett was done in by the Saints’ nomadic 3-13 season after the hurricane displaced the team to San Antonio. Also with the Rams is Rick Venturi, a longtime Saints assistant coach under Jim Mora, Mike Ditka and Haslett. Venturi even was an interim head coach for the Saints after Mora resigned.

Bush likened the Rams’ visit to New Orleans to the Saints’ trip to Seattle earlier this season. New Orleans was 0-4 when it visited Seattle and beat the Seahawks impressively. Could the Rams be primed to do something similar?

“We know what they’re going through and we know what it’s like,” Bush said. “We know what their mind-set is because we’ve been there.”