no effort to diminish the pressure the Saints are under to beat visiting NFC South rival Atlanta (8-4) on Sunday.
"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."