A season’s worth of adversity dimmed the New Orleans Saints’ high hopes for the first half of 2008, and the second half isn’t off to a great start with key players still sidelined.
The Atlanta Falcons, meanwhile, have a surprisingly rosy outlook after taking advantage of a soft schedule to reach the midway point in much better shape than expected.
The Saints look to overcome continued personnel issues and record back-to-back victories for the first time this season while the Falcons hope to continue their surprising play as the NFC South rivals square off at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
New Orleans (4-4) entered the season expecting to compete for the division title, but a series of injuries at the skill positions contributed to the Saints’ slow start and their fall to last place in the South.
Top receiver Marques Colston missed five games with a thumb injury, tight end Jeremy Shockey missed three following sports hernia surgery and still isn’t 100 percent and running back Deuce McAllister was slowed early in the season while recovering from knee surgery.
Each of those players is expected to be on the field Sunday, but the Saints will still be without star running back Reggie Bush, who had arthroscopic surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee in October. They’ll also likely be missing No. 2 receiver David Patten, out since September with a groin injury.
“We understand in this league that nobody really cares,” coach Sean Payton said of his team’s first-half adversity. “I say that not in a negative way, but nobody wants to hear about your pains. It’s getting to the point with injuries and other potential losses, we have to be able to handle that stuff and not let it negatively affect our team.
“We had set high goals. Fortunately for us we have a lot of football left, but we’re going to have to play more consistently. I think anyone would see that.”
While New Orleans is disappointed with its first half, Atlanta (5-3) is hoping to build on a surprising start that has already seen the Falcons surpass their win total from last season (4-12).
Three of Atlanta’s wins came against Detroit, Kansas City and Oakland, teams that are a combined 3-21 halfway through the season. The Falcons hope their success carries over as the competition picks up in the coming weeks.
“You never want to have a letup,” safety Erik Coleman said after the Falcons beat the Raiders 24-0 last Sunday. “Especially going into next week we want to continue to be consistent through four quarters.
“I think we did a great job of that on defense as well as offense. That helps build our confidence a little bit going into next week. We have a huge game playing against the Saints.”
New Orleans has swept the last two season series with Atlanta, winning those four games by an average of 16.0 points. Saints quarterback Drew Brees, leading the NFL with 2,563 passing yards, has completed 91 of 133 passes for 1,087 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception during that win streak.
The Falcons are hoping to snap their skid against the Saints behind rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who was 17-for-22 for 220 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in last week’s victory. He led Atlanta on scoring drives on its first four possessions.
“We came out and scored three touchdowns on our first three drives and got the field goal on the fourth,” Ryan said. “We had a good rhythm and a good momentum. I thought we did a good job in the no-huddle today. Most of all, our defense kept them from really doing anything on offense today, so it was an impressive effort by everybody.”
The Saints struggled defensively in their last outing, but the NFL’s most prolific offense with 403.1 total yards per game compiled 409 in a 37-32 win over San Diego in London on Oct. 26. Brees was 30-for-41 for 339 yards and three TDs.
To build on that win, the Saints may need to overcome more personnel issues. McAllister faces a possible four-game suspension because the weight-loss supplement he used yielded a positive test for a diuretic that is banned by the NFL.
Making matters worse, both starting defensive ends, Will Smith and Charles Grant, face potential punishment for the same violation. They’ll all keep playing while their suspensions are under appeal, and there’s no set time for how long that process can take. Payton sounded confident the three regulars at least would be available this week.
“I think we’re beyond that right now,” Payton said. “Without commenting on dates or specifics, I’m sure at some point there will be a hearing and there will be a decision made by the league and we’ll go from there.”