Saints alive ... barely

Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 11:07 p.m.
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Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (7) congratulates his cousin New Orleans Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks (2) after the Falcons beat the Saints 24-17 in Atlanta, Nov. 17. The Saints must win against division leader Tampa on Sunday to stay alive.

(AP Photo/Ric Feld)
NEW ORLEANS - This is no time for the New Orleans offense to sag.
The Saints (7-4) followed a 6-1 start with losses in three of the last four games as the once-powerful offense struggled. The losses dropped New Orleans to third in the NFC South, behind Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
This week, New Orleans has a rematch with the Buccaneers (9-2), winners of four in a row, including a 21-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.
The game matches a Saints offense that has scored an NFC-high 322 points against a Tampa Bay defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL and has surrendered a mere 100 points since the two teams last met in the opener.
But against the Browns last week, New Orleans, which entered the game with the best red-zone offense in the NFC, managed only 13 points in six trips inside Cleveland's 20. Turnovers, all by quarterback Aaron Brooks, ended three drives. Two others ended in field goals.
"We didn't play well offensively, as you saw," Brooks said. "We fought well. We fought hard. We just didn't play well."
The Saints played without Deuce McAllister last week. McAllister spent the week rehabilitating a sprained right ankle and coach Jim Haslett chose not to use him.
McAllister practiced this week, but was listed as questionable for the game. He had a big week in New Orleans' victory against the Bucs, and Tampa defensive tackle Warren Sapp said he expects him to be a factor again.
"He hasn't played in a couple of weeks, he's staring at 1,000 yards and he wants to get it going," Sapp said. "He's loaded and they're playing well. We've got to neutralize it. He plays well: 109 yards on us on 31 carries. It's real evident to us that he's an excellent back in this league and we've got to be on our game."
A win could pull New Orleans within a game of Tampa in the NFC's most powerful division.
The Bucs are off to their best start and put themselves into position to make a run for home-field advantage in the playoffs, which would be major for a franchise that's never won a postseason game on the road.
Beating New Orleans could mean taking the division title for the Buccaneers, Sapp said.
"We could pretty much put them away," Sapp said. "It's a great opportunity when you control your own destiny and you don't have to scoreboard watch. The task is right in front of you for 60 minutes of football, and that's the challenge for us this week, to come out and see if we can put this thing away."
New Orleans beat Tampa Bay 26-20 in overtime to start the season. Since then the Bucs have adjusted to the new offensive system, the new coaches and each other, quarterback Brad Johnson said.
"I feel like we have progressed weekly," Johnson said. "I think we have bounced back from the first loss and we have gone 9-1 since."

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