Saints hurting physically heading to Chicago

Published 7:28 pm Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A fluky injury on a crazy play has ended Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie’s season, making New Orleans’ slim playoff hopes even slimmer.

Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday that McKenzie tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while nearly recovering Donovan McNabb’s fumble in what turned out to be Philadelphia’s first touchdown in the Eagles 38-23 victory in New Orleans on Sunday.

McKenzie has been placed on injured reserve, as has reserve running back Jamaal Branch, who fractured his right leg during kickoff coverage.

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Players were given Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so McKenzie was not available for comment. He’ll need reconstructive surgery, followed by months of rehabilitation, which may affect his ability to participate fully in practices when training camp opens next August.

Next season, McKenzie will be in the fourth year of his current five-year, $22 million contract with the Saints.

McKenzie had been the Saints’ best defensive back this season, returning a pair of interceptions for touchdowns and being chosen as an NFC alternate for the Pro Bowl.

He was the first player to arrive at the loose ball resulting from McNabb’s fumble, but the ball squirted into the end zone after he tried to fall on it at the 2-yard line. McKenzie then quickly bounced up to give chase before collapsing in the end zone.

It was one of several error-filled plays Sunday that cost New Orleans (7-8) a chance to take control of the race for the final wild-card spot in the NFC.

However, because Minnesota lost to Washington later Sunday night, the Saints remained alive heading into their regular season finale in Chicago this Sunday.

To advance, the Saints must beat the Bears, then hope that Minnesota (8-7) falls at Denver and that Washington (8-7) loses to visiting Dallas.

New Orleans plays one of the early games that day, while Minnesota and Washington both play later in the afternoon, sparing the Saints from scoreboard watching while they’re trying to win a game.

“If we’re watching the scoreboard, we just better be watching our own score right now,” said Payton, who had mysteriously lost his voice but explained in a squeaky whisper that he felt fine otherwise. “We’ve got one game left to finish and we’re going to have to play better in all areas.”

Payton said Marques Colston, the Saints’ leading receiver with 90 catches for 1,108 yards, is expected to play in Chicago after being knocked out of the Philadelphia game with a chest contusion that had him spitting up blood.

The coach said Reggie Bush might return after missing three games with a partial tear of his left posterior cruciate ligament, and injury that normally requires about a month of rehabilitation.

Payton said Bush was “pretty close” to playing against Philadelphia.

“The soreness was gone. He felt pretty comfortable,” Payton said. “He’s going to practice Wednesday and we’ll see where we’re at.”

After their surprise run to the NFC Championship game in Chicago nearly a year ago now, Payton said the Saints have been very frustrated by their inconsistency and injury trouble this season.

They lost power running back Deuce McAllister to a season-ending injury in Week 3, then discovered Bush’s injury on Dec. 6. Aaron Stecker, who went from third-string running back to starter, sprained a toe during the first half of the Philadelphia game, but came back in the second half. He’s expected to be limited in practice this week, and with Branch going down, Payton said the Saints may need to sign another reserve running back for the Chicago game.

Yet, despite their disappointment with a season now on the brink of ending shy of the postseason, Saints players have taken comfort in the fact that they didn’t fold after a dreadful 0-4 start and remained in the hunt until the final day of the season. “There’s always hope, but we’re not worried about any equations or anything like that,” quarterback Drew Brees said Sunday when asked about the Chicago game. “We’ve got pride and that’s what we’re playing for right now.”