Saints look to regain swagger

Published 5:51 am Wednesday, January 6, 2010

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — After starting the season 13-0, the New Orleans Saints are looking to get their swagger back after losing three in a row.

Coach Sean Payton is giving the Saints nearly a week off to clear their heads before they return to practice for double sessions Saturday and Sunday to begin preparing for a divisional playoff game. The Saints will open on Jan. 16 at 4:30 p.m. in the Louisiana Superdome against Philadelphia, Green Bay or Arizona, depending on this weekend’s first-round results.

“The guys will have a break to get away from here,” Payton said. “You’re in sudden death now. The focus is strictly on one game and playing your best football.”

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New Orleans has not done that for a while. No team has ever reached the Super Bowl after entering the playoffs on a three-game skid.

Payton dismissed the fact as a statistic rather than a trend. His players did not appear too concerned, either.

“If we have a strong performance in the playoffs, these last three games will be just a blip on the radar screen,” offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “If we don’t play well, it’s going to be talked about until next season. We all understand that, but I don’t think it’s shaken the confidence of this team.”

New Orleans has plenty of positives to build on in the postseason. Quarterback Drew Brees set a NFL record for completion percentage (.706) while the Saints scored a franchise-record 510 points, 40 more than any other team this year. Their 13 victories set a team record, too. They are the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time.

But the concerns go deeper than just the last three games, which included an overtime defeat at home to Tampa Bay. The defense slipped from the top 10 to No. 25 in yards allowed by the end of the season, the lowest ranking of any of the 12 playoff teams.

Although several starters rested in a meaningless 23-10 loss to Carolina on Sunday, the defense gave up 1,725 yards in the previous four games, an average of 431.2 per contest. The Detroit Lions, who finished last in the NFL in total defense for the season, allowed 392.1.

“Everybody in the locker room can take something that they need to get back to doing fundamentally correct,” linebacker Scott Shanle said. “Obviously, we would like to have been playing better down the stretch.”

Injuries played a part in the defense’s decline, but for the first time since early in the year, all 11 starters are expected to be healthy for the playoffs. Shanle missed the last two games while recovering from a concussion.

Cornerback Jabari Greer, who broke up a team-high 13 passes in the first eight games, returned from a sports hernia injury against Carolina after missing seven in a row.

“We’ll return to form pretty quick,” Shanle said. “With the rest and getting everybody back healthy, there is going to be excitement in that defensive huddle.”

In a switch, the Saints have bigger injury concerns on offense, although Payton said tight end Jeremy Shockey, who has missed the last three games with a toe injury, could have played against Carolina.

Wide receiver Lance Moore, who led the team with 79 catches a year ago, has missed nine games with assorted injuries. His status for the playoffs has not been determined.

Pierre Thomas, who has a team-high 793 rushing yards, sat out the Carolina game with three cracked ribs he sustained a week earlier against Tampa Bay. He said Monday he was not sure he would be totally healthy for the playoffs.

“I might be close to 90 percent, but I’m going to try to reach 100 percent,” he said. “I know it’s going to take time. I probably won’t get there.”

At least he will have two weeks. Physically and mentally, the Saints want the extra time to get away from their late-season swoon and recapture their swagger.

“This week for everybody is about getting their bodies healthy and getting their batteries recharged,” Brees said. “Get away, be with your family and relax. This bye week was much needed for a lot of guys.”