Originally created 12/17/00

Falcons have been in Saints shoes



NEW ORLEANS - The 10 p.m. news on the local Fox affiliate dedicated its entire broadcast Friday night to the New Orleans Saints.

There were no stories about the downtown casino filing for bankruptcy, no mentions of robberies and mayhem and absolutely no whispers of George W. Bush or Al Gore.

As if the Big Easy needed a reason to party, folks here are getting giddy about their football team. The Atlanta Falcons, who will play before a packed Louisiana Superdome crowd today at 1 p.m. (EST), have seen this before. That's why they quietly offer this warning:

Enjoy it while it lasts.

See if this sounds familiar: The Saints were 3-13 last year and are poised to make the playoffs with a victory today. New Orleans leads the NFC West with a 9-5 record and stands to make the biggest turnaround in the National Football League.

Two years ago, it was the Falcons that made such a turnaround. They went 7-9 in 1998, then had a seven game improvement in 1999 to win the NFC Championship.

A year later, Atlanta was back in the dumps at 5-11.

The NFC West has become football's biggest roller coaster. If the Saints win today and qualify for the playoffs, they will become the third team in five years to go from worst to first in the division. And that mark doesn't include the miracle season in Atlanta two years ago, because the Falcons finished third in 1998 - one notch ahead of New Orleans.

Carolina went 7-9 in 1995 and won the West a year later with a 12-4 record. A year ago, the St. Louis Rams went 13-3 to win the division and eventually Super Bowl XXXIV after going 4-12 in 1998.

The Panthers since have slumped back into mediocrity, while the Rams have to win Monday night's game at Tampa Bay or the regular-season finale at New Orleans to qualify for the playoffs.

The Falcons have been the same since playing in Super Bowl XXXIII.

Atlanta has won only eight games in the past two years. At 3-11, the Falcons are on track to finish last in the division for the first time since 1990 and the eighth time in the club's 35-year history.

"Nothing lasts forever," said Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle, who is on the injured list for the first time in his 14-year career.

New Orleans has made its turnaround amid the same kinds of injuries that have floored Atlanta. Running back Ricky Williams broke his left ankle on Nov. 12. Quarterback Jeff Blake was lost for the season with a broken and dislocated right foot on Nov. 19.

While the Falcons never have recovered from losing running back Jamal Anderson for 13 games in 1999, and Tuggle, linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Shane Dronett and defensive end Pellom McDaniels this year, New Orleans hasn't skipped a beat.

Coach Jim Haslett has used a committee of running backs - Terry Allen, Chad Morton, Jerald Moore and Terrelle Smith - to replace Williams, who has been cleared to return to practice the day after Atlanta leaves town.

Aaron Brooks has filled in for Blake by throwing for 1,021 yards and seven touchdowns in three games as a starter.

"I have to come in and fulfill the role," Brooks said. "It's unfortunate what happened to (Jeff) Blake, but at the same time, I knew I was in a situation where I had to come in."

"We just plug them in," said Saints wide receiver Joe Horn, who has 1,164 yards and seven touchdowns. "The guys that went down are key, but anybody who is backing up somebody could be a starter."

In all, New Orleans has been forced to replace six starters this year.

"If you go out and do the right things and get some breaks, you can turn it around," safety Darren Perry said. "We play smart. In this business, there's a fine line between winning and losing."

The Falcons still are trying to figure out if they have backup worthy of starting. Rookie free agent Doug Johnson will start at quarterback, while veteran Chris Chandler will be the backup. Johnson, who had four turnovers and one touchdown pass in his only start, has two games to prove he is the team's playmaker of the future.

"He is competitive, and he's got a strong arm," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said. "But he's young. Doug has the tools as far as the arm is concerned. He just needs to play. I think he'll learn from that first game he played and hopefully continue to get better."

New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard said they hope to use Johnson's lack of experience to their advantage today as they try to clinch a playoff berth.

"We realize that he is a rookie quarterback, so we have to get into his head," he said. "If we get into the quarterback's head, we can turn the game toward us."

Turning the momentum around in the NFC West hasn't been the problem in the last five years. Keeping that momentum, however, is the real challenge.

Reach Don Coble