Saints try and keep streak going

Published 11:08 pm Saturday, November 3, 2007

Drew Brees has repeatedly found the means to thrive when his ability to succeed has been in doubt.

When the San Diego Chargers used a first-round draft pick on quarterback Philip Rivers in 2004, Brees responded with one of his best seasons as a pro, leading the Chargers to the playoffs.

When he joined the New Orleans Saints in 2006, nursing a surgically reconstructed shoulder that limited his ability to throw during training camp, he surprised the skeptics by leading the NFL in passing and guiding his team to the NFC championship game.

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Still, one had to wonder if he wasn’t a little delusional when he said he viewed the Saints’ dreadful 0-4 start this season as an opportunity to make history.

Only one 0-4 team, the 1992 Chargers, has rallied to make the playoffs. None has advanced to a Super Bowl. Brees, however, maintained the Saints would not abandon their goal of being a Super Bowl contender by season’s end.

After the three-game winning streak that followed, that’s not as far-fetched as it once seemed.

“After that 0-4 start, our mentality was to just start over,” Brees recalled after practice this week. “We have won three in a row, and in the grand scheme we are really not that far out of the division.”

New Orleans (3-4) is only one game out of the NFC South lead with a lot of football still to play, thanks in part to the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-2), who pulled out a 24-23 victory at Tampa Bay last weekend.

But to climb back to .500 at the midway point in the season, New Orleans must now beat that same Jacksonville squad, which certainly won’t be intimidated coming into the Louisiana Superdome.

Jacksonville is a perfect 3-0 on the road so far. The Saints are only 1-2 at home this season and 0-2 against AFC teams, losing by 31 to Indianapolis and by 17 to Tennessee.

“I definitely feel like the AFC has been dominating in the past couple of years,” Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor said. “It’s a lot of dogfighting in the NFL overall each and every week, but I think the AFC has had the edge over the past couple of years.”

Since Payton took over in New Orleans, the Saints have played six games against AFC teams, winning only one at Cleveland in their 2006 season opener. And that game was close.

“We’ve struggled against AFC teams,” Saints running back Reggie Bush said. “Coach Payton brought it up to us and it’s funny he brought it up, because I was thinking that myself. This is an additional challenge for us.”

New Orleans gets a potential break in that Jacksonville starting quarterback David Garrard will sit out for at least one more game with a sprained left ankle, meaning backup Quinn Gray gets his second start.

Against Tampa Bay, Gray was 7-of-16 for 100 yards, nothing like the numbers Brees put up in San Francisco last weekend: 31-of-39 for 336 yards and four touchdowns.

But Gray didn’t throw any interceptions, allowing Jacksonville’s reliable running game and playmaking defense to put the Jaguars over the top.

“Quinn was solid. We didn’t ask him to do a lot,” said Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, who played and coached in New Orleans and still has family here. “He made some key throws in key moments, but we didn’t ask him to do a lot in particular early. I wanted to let him settle down and we wanted to use the strength of our team and run the football.”

The Saints’ defense expects Jacksonville, which averages 146.3 yards on the ground, to run a lot this week, as well. While New Orleans’ secondary was vulnerable to giving up big plays early in the year, the Saints’ rushing defense has been solid, giving up an average of 98.1 yards, 10th best against the run in the NFL.

“This team we’re playing Sunday is a lot better running the football than some of the teams we’ve played,” Payton warned. “They’re one of the better running teams in our league, so this will be a big test.”

If New Orleans passes that test, the Saints, whose season seemed all but over a month ago, could re-emerge as a favorite to win the NFC South.

“The reality of it is we’re 3-4, but when you’ve won three games in a row it doesn’t feel like you’re 3-4,” Saints fullback Mike Karney said. “So, as long as we don’t worry about the record or who we’re behind, and just worry about one team at a time, which is the Jacksonville Jaguars, that’s all that matters. Take care of them, and we’ll just keep on sneaking up on everybody, which is fine.”