Originally created 01/02/01

Saints back to work for next playoff game



NEW ORLEANS -- So much for the celebration.

With the city savoring the first playoff victory in the New Orleans Saints' 34-year history, the team welcomed in the New Year with a totally new experience - preparing for a second-round game.

New Orleans - a team few figured for the postseason after a 3-13 record last year - finds itself in position to take the next step toward the Super Bowl.

Saints coach Jim Haslett gave his players Sunday and Monday off while the coaching staff hammered out a game plan for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional playoffs on Saturday.

The Saints (11-6) hung on to beat the St. Louis Rams 31-28 Saturday, eliminating the defending NFL champions in the opening round of the playoffs. The Saints came in 0-4 in the postseason, and hadn't qualified since 1992.

"It's a new situation for a lot of people in this locker room, but one we'd like to get used to," said Saints linebacker Willie Whitehead. "We have to keep adjusting, keep learning and keep focused for that to happen."

The Saints insist it was not a late-game lapse that allowed the Rams to come back from a 31-7 deficit to make it close.

It was more a matter of withstanding a Rams' onslaught that included three onside kicks, and a deflected pass that made a 45-degree turn and ended up in Marshall Faulk's hands for the second of three touchdowns by St. Louis within a seven-minute span.

"It wasn't a case of guys thinking we'd won early or anything like that," Whitehead said. "But we understand better than ever now that we have to stay focused to the very end. We've been talking all season about needing 60 minutes of effort. Now we need it more than ever."

The Vikings (11-5), despite coming off three straight losses, will show the Saints the same kind of high-powered offense as the Rams.

Randy Moss and Cris Carter will challenge the New Orleans secondary, Robert Smith might not be another Marshall Faulk. But he is a 1,000-yard rusher, and Daunte Culpepper is having a big year passing the ball.

"It's going to take an all-out assault on our part," said Saints defensive coordinator Ron Zook. "But that seems to be what our guys like best. They seem to like being the underdog."

The Vikings, the NFC Central champions and No. 2 seed in the playoffs, struggled late in the season. After opening 7-0, Minnesota went 4-5 over the last nine games and lost the last three.

Culpepper, hampered by a sprained ankle, played only briefly in the regular- season finale, a 31-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

In 10 of their 16 games this season, the Vikings scored 27 or more points.

Beating a team like the Rams, with their ability to score quickly and frequently, does more than just move the Saints on to the next game, Whitehead said. It gives them the confidence they need to head into the second round.

"We beat the Rams and the Rams were averaging, what, 30, 40 points a game?" Whitehead said. "If we can play with St. Louis, we can play with anybody, that's how I feel.

"They're a high-powered offense and can score on anybody and we beat them. We made it through that, so I'm not scared of anybody."