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Last week, the streaking New Orleans Saints had every reason to be confident about their chances of winning the weak NFC South despite getting off to their worst start in more than a decade.
A stunning loss, however, will make repeating as division champs a little more challenging.
After having their four-game win streak snapped, the Saints look to get back on track when they visit the Houston Texans on Sunday.
New Orleans (4-5) opened this season with four straight losses for its worst start since 1996, when the Saints dropped their first five games en route to a 3-13 finish. This year’s team, though, rebounded with a four-game win streak during which it outscored opponents 122-67.
That run was halted last Sunday with a 37-29 home loss against St. Louis, which entered the game 0-8 and with the worst scoring defense in the NFC. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees fumbled twice and threw two interceptions while being regularly pressured by the Rams defense.
“To say we were squared away with everything that was going on during the game is a fallacy,” Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “Today’s one of those days where we have to learn from it and make sure we can use it as a positive, because we’ve already lost the game, but we can’t lose another one because of the mistakes we made.”
Despite the surprising loss, the Saints remain in the hunt for the division title. They’re tied with Carolina for second place, trailing Tampa Bay by one game. The Saints have one game remaining against each of their division rivals, including meetings with Carolina and Tampa Bay in the two weeks following Sunday’s game in Houston.
“We still have the division right in front of us,” Brees said. “We are going to see Tampa Bay one more time. We are going to see all of our division opponents one more time. So we’re lucky to be in the position we are: At 4-5 and still only a game out.”
The Saints are also encouraged by last week’s strong fourth quarter in which they scored 22 points on drives of 74, 96 and 63 yards. After trailing by 27 points with 12 minutes remaining, they lost by just eight - a fact that gives Brees confidence in his team’s ability to adjust to defensive schemes.
“Early on, they got us,” Brees said Monday after reviewing film of the loss. “As the game went on, we figured it out and we were able to move the ball right down the field.”
They’ll try to do the same in Houston, where the Texans (4-5) will get two of their top offensive options back in the lineup. Andre Johnson, one of the NFL’s leading receivers through the first two weeks of the season, will play for the first time since Sept. 16. He’s missed the last seven games with a sprained knee, only to be cleared to play last week, when the Texans had their bye.
“Some of the other guys need rest. They’ve played nine games. I’ve only played two,” said Johnson, who had 14 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns in his first two contests - both Texans victories.
Johnson, though, knows that the bye week was valuable for his teammates as the Texans prepare for the stretch run with hopes of avoiding the franchise’s sixth straight losing season since it began play in 2002.
“It just gives guys a chance to let their body rest and get healed up and get ready for these last seven games,” he said. “These seven games are big for us.”
Johnson will be reunited with quarterback Matt Schaub, who’s set to return after missing Houston’s previous game with a concussion.
Even with Schaub and Johnson back and a record identical to the Saints’, the Texans’ chances to make the playoffs are slim because they play in the AFC South. Houston is in last place, and each of its three division rivals is at least three games over .500.
In their last game Nov. 4, the Texans snapped a three-game skid with a 24-17 win at Oakland. Ron Dayne stepped in for banged-up starter Ahman Green and ran for a season-high 122 yards with one touchdown on 21 carries. It was the fourth 100-yard performance of Dayne’s career, and just the second over the last six seasons.
“That’s Ronnie,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “Just when you think maybe not, Ronnie steps up and says, ‘Get on my back. I can still do this.’ … He’s a warrior. He knew we needed him, and he stepped up big.”
Green, who signed a four-year, $23 million contract in March, will miss this game with a swollen left knee.
One of Dayne’s 100-yard games came in his only career contest against New Orleans on Sept. 30, 2001, when he was with the New York Giants.
The Texans lost their only previous meeting with the Saints 31-10 in New Orleans on Sept. 14, 2003.
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