The Covington News - - Sports -

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."

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