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Saints Prove They're for Real

October 16, 2006|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

It's time to toss the brown paper bags in the trash can and put the "S" back on the front of the team name.

The New Orleans Saints are for real.

A 27-24 victory Sunday over the Eagles improved the Saints to 5-1, good for first place in the NFC South as they enter an off week.

Even as the Saints raced to a 4-1 start, there were doubters who viewed the team as a feel-good story that was fueled by the emotions stirred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and that would soon fade.

But Sunday, the Saints took out a team considered one of the NFL's early-season elite and the victory ensured that this is not the team that was 3-13 last season, when it bounced around the country playing home games at different stadiums because the hurricane had rendered its own unusable.

"A lot of people are going to doubt us," defensive end Charles Grant said. "But I think this football team is going above and beyond what a lot of people think we can."

The fast start doesn't mean much. In 2002, the Saints started 6-1 only to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs.

But a new coach, Sean Payton, a new quarterback, Drew Brees, and an exciting rookie, Reggie Bush, have helped transform a team that last year was the worst in the NFC.

"It's a whole different team," said Eagles defensive end Darren Howard, who played for New Orleans last season. "They're doing it with a young set of guys who don't remember what happened in years past.... It's six games and they're 5-1. It's hard to say anything but they're legitimate."

The Saints had become accustomed to the bottom spot in the standings, finishing last in their division 14 times in 39 seasons since joining the league in 1967. That's nearly three times as often as the times they've made the playoffs -- five.

A dismal beginning to the franchise -- it was 39-110 in its first 11 seasons -- led to fans' wearing paper bags on their heads and writing "Aints" on them.

They have won five games or fewer 18 times but appear poised to zoom past that mark in this 40th season in franchise history.

"I think we're kind of finding our identity as a team," Bush said. "We're finding out who we are and what kind of team we are. We are showing people how much fun we have and what these guys are all about on this team."

The Saints last made the playoffs in 2000, the only time the team has won a playoff game. Houston is the only other team that has never played in a conference or league championship game.

Houston joined in 2002.

It's a list the Saints would surely like to get off, but for now, they'll take the victory over Philadelphia and the respect that comes with it.

"We want to prove that we're a pretty good team," running back Deuce McAllister said. "We want to prove that we belong as some of the top-tier teams in the league."

And Then There Was One

With Detroit, Tampa Bay and Tennessee all winning Sunday, the Raiders are the only winless team in the NFL after a 13-3 loss to Denver.

The Raiders have lost 11 in a row dating to last season and have started 0-5 for the first time since 1964.

It's not exactly the commitment to excellence that led to Super Bowl titles in 1977, '81 and '84.

Heck, even the penalties are down. A team notorious for leading the league in penalties had the eighth-fewest (24) before Sunday.

They seem to be intent on retaining that indignity, though. They were flagged 13 times Sunday, which should get them back near the top of the league.

Don't Forget Us

Tiki Barber's 185 yards rushing will get most of the headlines after the Giants defeated the Falcons, 27-14, but New York's ability to contain Michael Vick should not be discounted.

The Giants, who began the game with only five sacks this season, had seven against the league's best running quarterback.

The Giants gave up two big plays -- a 90-yard touchdown run by Warrick Dunn and a 22-yard touchdown run by Vick -- but otherwise contained Atlanta, which began the game averaging a league-best 234.2 yards rushing.

The Falcons got 223 Sunday, but considering 112 came on two plays, the Giants will take it.

"We didn't totally shut them down," said linebacker Brandon Short.

"I do recall a 90-yard run. But if it wasn't for that one long run, we played very well today. Guys knew the Falcons had an explosive team, and we contained it."

Good Guys Wear Black

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was among the NFL's lowest-rated quarterbacks before Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but he had two touchdown passes without an interception in a 45-7 victory.

"I tried throwing to the guys in the black shirts rather than the guys in the white shirts," Roethlisberger said.

Abbott Without Costello

Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme knows how important receiver Steve Smith is to his team.

The Panthers were 0-2 while Smith sat out with a leg injury, but are 4-0 since his return. Smith had eight catches for 189 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown, Sunday in a 23-21 victory over Baltimore.

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