When New Orleans and Atlanta were scheduled for a late-season Monday night game, it seemed like an attractive matchup - a Saints team that went to last season’s NFC title game versus star quarterback Michael Vick and the Falcons.
With the Saints struggling and Vick in jail on dogfighting charges, this matchup at the Georgia Dome has lost a lot of its luster.
The absence of Reggie Bush only makes it worse.
Bush won’t play due to a partially torn left knee ligament that could sideline him the rest of the season. Saints coach Sean Payton, though, said it was “a little premature,” to predict Bush wouldn’t play again this season.
Bush practiced Thursday but the knee became sore that evening, and an MRI later revealed the injury.
He has carried the load for New Orleans since Deuce McAllister went down for the season with a knee injury in Week 3, and appears to be wearing down. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner has rushed for only 581 yards this season with an average of 3.7 per carry and eight fumbles.
“Reggie is a great talent. Reggie is one of the best athletes I have ever seen, but that only gets you so far,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “Certain fundamentals and discipline to playing this game - that is learned and that’s not something that just happens immediately.”
Bush’s unimpressive year is one reason New Orleans (5-7) has been among the NFL’s biggest disappointments, already exceeding its loss total from last season when it came within one win of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time. A four-game winning streak after an 0-4 start seemed to spark the Saints, but they’ve since dropped three of four.
In last Sunday’s 27-23 loss to Tampa Bay, the Saints gained a season-low 246 yards while allowing 466, a season high. Bush, who gained only 64 yards on 13 carries, made an errant flip on a trick play late that was recovered by the Buccaneers and led to the winning score with just 14 seconds left.
Payton took the blame for that play.
“That’s a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I’ve done as head coach since we’ve been here,” Payton said. “Obviously, I regret the play call. It cost us the game.”
The Saints, though, still have a shot at the wild card as they’re one game behind Detroit, Minnesota and Arizona for the last spot.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is tied with St. Louis and San Francisco for the NFC’s worst record.
The Falcons (3-9) come in having lost three straight for the third time this year, including a 28-16 setback last week at St. Louis. Redman replaced Harrington after he threw an interception late in the third quarter with Atlanta down 21-3. A former first-round pick of Baltimore, Redman went 16-of-24 for 172 yards and two touchdowns before throwing a costly interception late in the contest.
“He came in and he was calm and he understands what we are doing,” Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said of Redman, who was out of football from 2004-06. “He seems to fit well. He is still learning but I thought he executed well and came in and made some big throws with poise.
“I think we started feeding off of that. I hope we can take that into next week and feed off of what we did in the fourth quarter.”
Wide receiver Roddy White caught 10 passes for a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown. White has 920 receiving yards and four TDs this season, both team highs. Running back Jerious Norwood, in his first start of the season, had eight carries for 94 yards.
“We have to get Jerious touches, there’s no question,” Petrino said. “He’s the most explosive player for us.”
Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler said the team is playing to gauge its future.
“We are all playing for our future and we will see what happens,” he said. “This organization is going to find out what works. Whatever that formula is, so be it. We are going to be successful at some point. Right now, we are just having a bad year.”
New Orleans has won three straight against Atlanta, including a 22-16 victory on Oct. 21 at the Superdome. The Falcons led 16-14 in the fourth quarter before Brees’ 4-yard touchdown pass to Bush put the Saints ahead for good.
Receiver Joe Horn, who spent seven seasons in New Orleans before signing with Atlanta this year, had three catches for 25 yards in that game. He returned from a hamstring strain last week, catching four passes for 38 yards.