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Falcons face desperate Saints
Ailing New Orleans in must-win situation as Atlanta comes to town
1207Saints sj
New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush (25) is sent flying on a first-quarter hit by Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Jermaine Phillips, lower right, last Sunday in Tampa, Fla. - photo by By Chris O'Meara

Falcons at Saints

1 p.m., FOX (WAGA-5)

Opening line: Saints by 3 1/2.

Record vs. spread: Atlanta 8-4; New Orleans 8-4.

Series record: Falcons lead 44-34.

Last meeting: Falcons 34, Saints 20, Nov. 9, 2008.

Saints offense: Overall (1), rush (28), pass (1)

Saints defense: Overall (20), rush (19), pass (24)

Falcons offense: Overall (6), rush (2), pass (14)

Falcons defense: Overall (22), rush (21), pass (23)

Streaks, stats and notes: Falcons have won four of last five games. ... RB Michael Turner ranks third in NFL with 1,208 yards rushing. ... DE John Abraham has 221/2 sacks in his past 27 games. He had sack and four QB hurries in last meeting. ... ... WR Roddy White has 62 catches for 972 yards, six TDs in past 10 games. He had five catches for 68 yards and TD in last meeting.

... Rookie QB Matt Ryan won his only start vs. New Orleans, completing 16 of 23 passes for 248 yards, two TDs, no INTs. ... Falcons are 3-3 on road. ... Saints QB Drew Brees passed for 422 yards in last meeting. ... Saints rushed for 44 yards as team in loss last week vs. Tampa Bay. ... Brees has passed for 3,870 yards, surpassing 320 in eight games. ... Brees must average 303.5 yards passing to break Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season record of 5,084. ... WR Lance Moore has TD catch in five straight games. Moore has 27 catches for 398 yards and six TDs in that stretch, including 32-yard TD in last meeting. ... DE Bobby McCray had two sacks last week. ... Saints are 4-1 in Louisiana Superdome, 5-1 in home games overall, including victory as designated home team in London on Oct. 26 vs. San Diego.

NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton doesn’t pay much attention to the mysticism surrounding the New Orleans Saints’ mostly losing four-decade history.

That the Louisiana Superdome was built on a cleared cemetery and that this city has historical ties to Voodoo doesn’t concern him.

He’d be the last person to buy the idea that someone has been sticking pins in a Saints bobblehead, not that anyone has any better explanation for why a team with playoff aspirations has been afflicted with so much misfortune this season.

The Saints have placed 15 players on injured reserve, including four defensive starters. Then there have been a handful of other injuries that have caused marquee players such as Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey to miss several games each, not to mention the suspensions of four other regulars.

Although Payton refuses to use his club’s myriad roster changes as excuses, the fact remains the Saints have struggled with consistency while going 6-6, and likely need to win all of their final four games to make the playoffs.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees made no effort to diminish the pressure the Saints are under to beat visiting NFC South rival Atlanta (8-4) today.

"In order for us to make the playoffs, if you look at the NFC ... we probably have to win out," Brees said. "I would say it’s very much a must win."

The Falcons know all about upheaval, given last year’s imprisonment of former star quarterback Michael Vick and the departure of coach Bobby Petrino after less than a season. But all that’s history now under new coach Mike Smith. The Falcons are suddenly playoff contenders. With rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White and power running back Michael Turner leading Atlanta’s offense, the depleted Saints could struggle to match up.

This week, safety Kevin Kaesviharn became New Orleans’ latest defensive starter to go on injured reserve after he hurt his neck during last weekend’s loss in Tampa Bay. Starting cornerbacks Mike McKenzie (knee) and Tracy Porter (wrist), and defensive end Charles Grant (triceps) have also had season-ending injuries.

Then there was the possibility that suspensions would cost the Saints starting defensive end Will Smith and running back Deuce McAllister.

They were among four Saints players who tested positive for the banned diuretic Bumetanide. Jamar Nesbit was starting at guard when he decided earlier this season to serve his four-game suspension without appealing. He is back on the active roster, but Grant, Smith and McAllister were suspended four games without pay this past week when the NFL rejected their appeals.

The NFL Players Association filed suit two days later in an effort to block the suspensions, raising the possibility of McAllister and Smith getting back on the field before the regular season ends.

In the meantime, Bobby McCray was the only regular defensive end left from the start of the season. Filling out the new rotation were Jeff Charleston, signed as a free agent in October, along with Josh Savage, who was moved up from the Saints’ practice squad, and Rob Ninkovich, who was signed off of Miami’s practice squad.

"You never know what can happen when other guys step in," McCray said. "It’s unfortunate things happen that way, but you’ve just got to be able to swallow it up and deal with it. You can’t dwell on it."

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron noted that New Orleans does have a healthy interior rotation with standout rookie Sedrick Ellis, Hollis Thomas and Kendrick Clancy, who may have to produce one of their better run-stuffing efforts of the season against Atlanta’s Turner, who is averaging 100 yards a game.

New Orleans also must find a way to pressure Ryan, whose ability to limit errors belies his inexperience. Ryan has thrown only six interceptions this season. When the Falcons soundly defeated New Orleans in Atlanta last month, Ryan was an efficient 16-of-23 for 248 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.

One constant for the Saints, meanwhile, has been Brees, who has thrown for 3,870 yards, putting him in striking distance of Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season record of 5,084 yards passing. At times, Brees has flourished by throwing to role players Lance Moore, Devery Henderson or Billy Miller. Lately, Brees has had better chemistry with Shockey and Colston as their health has improved. Bush, who missed the Saints’ loss in Atlanta, is also back.

"I’m very, very impressed with the weapons and the way they put their game plan together in New Orleans," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "The numbers they put up with the yards and the explosive plays ... you know they can score quickly and they’ve done it in some situations where they’ve been very banged up."

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