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Sunday Football Notes

For up-and-down Saints, a super finish still possible

By Greg A. Bedard
December 26, 2010

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“There was a loss of will, a loss of need and personal sacrifice.’’ Bill Walsh

Those words from the late Hall of Fame coach came as he reflected on the San Francisco 49ers’ 1982 season in David Harris’s book, “The Genius.’’

After going from last place to Super Bowl champions in 1981, the 49ers slumped to 3-6 in the strike-shortened season the following year.

The fact that the 49ers didn’t have the same desire to do all the things necessary to become champions isn’t unusual. More Super Bowl champions have failed to make the playoffs the following season (13 of 44) than have repeated as champions (eight).

It appeared for a while that the Saints might fall into the one-hit wonder category. They dropped to 3-2 after a 10-point loss to the Cardinals (who have won one game since then) and to 4-3 after being beaten at home, 30-17, by the Browns.

But the Saints rebounded to win six straight before last Sunday’s 30-24 loss at Baltimore.

Even still, at 10-4, the Saints might be the least talked-about defending Super Bowl champions in recent memory.

“I think it has more to do with the fact that people are used to Super Bowl-winning teams not performing well the next season,’’ said Saints fullback Heath Evans, who was a Patriot from 2005-08. “Statistics say most teams have a major fall-off. We’re sitting at 10 wins and a decent position.’’

Evans, who missed out on being part of the Saints’ Super Bowl run after suffering a knee injury in the seventh game of last season, said he hasn’t witnessed any letdown.

“For us, I know we do the same things we did last year. In fact, we’re probably doing more this year,’’ he said. “I don’t look around our team and see laziness. I don’t see a lack of hunger. I don’t see really a dropoff in people’s desire to win a championship.

“I do see a tough NFL schedule, different injuries that have popped up at different times, and turnovers. Those will get you beat against anybody.’’

A surprising amount of those turnovers have come on throws by quarterback Drew Brees. A year after finishing runner-up to Peyton Manning for MVP by throwing a league-leading 34 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, Brees has set a career high with 19 interceptions.

Evans defended his quarterback, saying Brees played with a left knee injury that was much worse than publicly disclosed.

“Everyone knew he had some type of injury going on, but it was probably an MCL injury that no one else would have dared to play with, and he didn’t miss a beat,’’ Evans said. “He was out there warring through for his teammates, the betterment of our team.

“Lord knows we’re nowhere near as good without [No.] 9 suited up for us. So I think the majority of some of those interceptions came during that span when he was really fighting through injuries that a lesser man would have shut it down and said, ‘Forget the team, I’m worried about me and I don’t want to get myself hurt worse.’

“He said, ‘No, I’m not going to miss a practice snap, much less a game snap.’ I thought that those interceptions, at least some of them, came from throwing off one leg for six weeks.’’

Brees was injured in the Saints’ first matchup with the Falcons, a 27-24 overtime loss in Week 3. Even though Brees has thrown at least one interception in the past 10 games, 10 came between Weeks 3 and 7.

The Saints will need Brees to be at his best tomorrow night in the rematch with Atlanta if they want to secure their spot in the playoffs and keep hope alive for another division title.

The rivalry took a nasty turn this past week when Falcons receiver Roddy White tweeted several shots at the Saints, including one at the city: “The grace of god gave them tht championship so tht city wouldn fall apart now and now they think they hot [obscenity].’’

Yes, all of the Saints heard about it.

“You can compare it to the Jets-Patriots,’’ Evans said. “You do look at division rivals, you look at teams you obviously have to beat to move on. Obviously that creates bad blood. I didn’t know that type existed for [White] to say some of the stuff he said.’’

Evans was buoyed this week by winning the fan vote for the Pro Bowl, though he said others are more deserving.

“Statistically this is probably my worst year as a pro. Our offense has just gone in a different direction,’’ said Evans, who has only 41 total yards and one TD catch. “Is my skill set still at a Pro Bowl level? I believe that. At the same time, I look at [John] Kuhn in Green Bay and Ovie [Mughelli] in Atlanta. There are a lot of guys that are very deserving this year.’’

Evans said he isn’t surprised by the Patriots’ success.

“You expect success out of them every year, the way Bill [Belichick] drives his team and the way Tommy [Brady] demands everyone’s best, day in and day out,’’ he said. “And even Jerod Mayo, who I got to see grow up as a youngster, I know the leader that he’s developed into. So you only expect the best from those guys.’’

Evans just doesn’t want a Super Bowl reunion.

“If we were going to play someone in the Super Bowl, I’d much rather play a coach that was nowhere near as qualified as Bill,’’ Evans said.

END GAMES?

For three veterans, change could be in air

For at least the past decade, you could count on receiver Hines Ward being a focal point of the Steelers offense, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck starting for the Seahawks, and cornerback Ronde Barber leading the vaunted Buccaneers defense.

But in 2011, all three will likely be looking at new roles, if not new addresses.

Ward, 34, has been the Steelers’ leading receiver every season since 1999, when he tied for the team lead with Troy Edwards. But this year Ward has 54 receptions, three behind Mike Wallace with only two games left.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has completed 524 passes to Ward since 2004, has looked more to Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and tight end Heath Miller.

“It’s a matter of opportunities,’’ said Ward, who doesn’t think he’s slowing down. “The other guys are getting a lot of opportunities and they’re capitalizing on them.’’

Ward is on track to finish with his least-productive season since he caught 48 passes in 2000.

Hasselbeck, the 35-year-old former Xaverian and Boston College star, was pulled during the Seahawks’ loss to the Falcons last weekend after three third-quarter turnovers. He has thrown 17 interceptions and lost five fumbles.

Backup Charlie Whitehurst played well in relief and Hasselbeck is a free agent after this season.

“If you don’t perform, if you don’t produce, if we don’t win, they’ll go out and get somebody new who they think can do the job,’’ Hasselbeck said.

Coach Pete Carroll said he’ll stick with Hasselbeck while the Seahawks remain alive in the woeful NFC West.

“It has to do with we think that Matt can get the job done for us,’’ Carroll said. “We have to keep him in good situations and we have to play good football around him.’’

Barber, 35, also doesn’t have a contract past this season, his 14th. And even though he’s still productive — three interceptions, 10 passes defensed — some wonder whether Barber will be playing his final home game today.

“We do this every year,’’ Barber said. “It’s either me giving it up or them getting rid of me. I’ve been asked this at least the last four years.’’

CONTINUED TURBULENCE

Jets owner Johnson keeps focus on football

Jets owner Woody Johnson defended his organization, which has endured a series of embarrassing incidents in the past year.

“I’m very proud of the organization,’’ Johnson said Thursday in a press conference. “I think the organization responded very responsibly in every case. The culture that I’m looking for is starting to develop and has developed to the point where the people in this building are able to handle it and be resilient and focused on what our real job is, and that’s playing football.’’

Johnson disagreed with the perception that the Jets have had an “inordinate’’ number of distractions this season, some of which have been pinned on coach Rex Ryan’s approach.

“I don’t think it’s loosey-goosey and I don’t think we lack discipline,’’ Johnson said. “You can’t win the number of games we’ve won, even with a rookie quarterback [last season], with a loosey-goosey anything. I think the perception is that he smiles, or whatever, and that gets confused for a lack of whatever. But I don’t look at it that way.

“I know the players don’t, either. Players want to feel that they are getting better and they want to feel that the people in command are giving them a formula that they are capable of winning with. I think they feel it. I know they feel it.’’

Johnson called two fellow AFC East owners — Stephen Ross of the Dolphins and the Patriots’ Robert Kraft — and apologized for actions taken by members of the Jets organization.

Sal Alosi, the Jets’ strength and conditioning coach, was suspended indefinitely for tripping a Dolphins player on a punt return.

Johnson called Kraft after Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said the Patriots also used questionable sideline tactics on punts.

Other incidents over the past year include Ryan being fined for making an obscene gesture to fans, a female reporter being made to feel uncomfortable in the Jets locker room, the Jenn Sterger investigation involving Brett Favre, receiver Braylon Edwards’s DWI charge, and most recently provocative videos that some say feature Ryan and his wife.

“Once we’ve made a mistake, I think we are pretty good at trying to make remedies, trying to cure, trying to correct what we’re doing, and we try to get better every year,’’ Johnson said.

Etc.
Heimerdinger says plight is no ‘big deal’ Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger received the game ball from coach Jeff Fisher after the team’s 31-17 victory over the Texans last week. Heimerdinger, 58, is battling a rare, and undisclosed, form of cancer. He starts his second round of chemotherapy tomorrow. “I know people think it’s a big deal that I’m going to work. But I’m not the first one to have this and go to work and do it,’’ Heimerdinger said. “I just happen to have a disease, but I’m not dying and I’m not going down the drain and I don’t feel special. I think there’s a lot of people that fight through this thing just like me that just aren’t offensive coordinators of NFL teams so they don’t get credit.’’

The heat is on Miami’s offense Expect the Dolphins to be looking for speed on offense when attention turns to the draft. In the last three games, the Dolphins have scored a combined 34 points. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning bemoaned the team’s lack of explosiveness when he said the Dolphins haven’t produced more than three dynamic plays out of 800. They rank 22d in total offense and 31st in scoring. “On our football team overall, we’re missing dynamics,’’ Henning said. The offense has suffered since second-year wide receiver Brian Hartline injured his hand against the Browns Dec. 5. “I would just tell you that some of our speed is sitting on the sideline right now and in the locker room in Brian Hartline,’’ said coach Tony Sparano. “You don’t have to be a coach to figure that out.’’

Tollefson gets tough love from Mom Giants backup defensive end Dave Tollefson has already been ruled out for today’s game against the Packers. But, apparently, the coaching staff didn’t consult his mother, Debra Crocker. Tollefson sprained his right knee in the first half of last Sunday’s loss to the Eagles. His mother, who had traveled from California for the game, was waiting for him at halftime. “I came out, and she’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ ’’ Tollefson said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m hurt.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t [care]. Get it taped up and get the hell in there. I didn’t fly here from California to watch you ride the pine.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to hear it.’ So I love Mom. If you guys [reporters] give her a call and ask her, she’ll probably be saying I should be playing this week.’’

Short yardage Today’s Seahawks-Buccaneers game could be meaningless. If the Rams beat the 49ers in their 1 p.m. game, then the Seahawks’ result at 4:15 doesn’t matter. The NFC West title would be decided in the season finale between the Rams and Seahawks in Seattle. But if San Francisco wins, the Seahawks likely need wins in their last two games to reach the playoffs . . . Titans receiver Randy Moss denied that he was the Nashville radio caller who wanted coach Jeff Fisher fired. And Fisher doesn’t regret bringing Moss aboard. “It was not a mistake whatsoever,’’ Fisher said. “If we had to do it over, of course we would do it. He has been great. Randy has been great for this team. The numbers aren’t there [five receptions in six games], the production is not there, the play time is not there right now because Kenny [Britt] is coming back. But Randy is a great teammate.’’ . . . Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman, on his second chance as a starter: “I think I’m definitely stereotyped as an inconsistent quarterback and I’m doing everything possible to change that perception. And the only way you can change that perception is to play consistently. It’s nothing you have to overthink, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.’’ . . . Unless the Texans lose their final two games, look for coach Gary Kubiak (36-42, no playoff appearances) to be back for a sixth season. But defensive coordinator Frank Bush and secondary coach David Gibbs will likely be gone . . . Channeling former Patriot receiver Troy Brown, the Bucs had receiver Preston Parker play safety last week against the Lions . . . The Eagles will have two seventh-round rookies in their starting lineup against the Vikings: middle linebacker Jamar Chaney and free safety Kurt Coleman.

By the numbers 2: NFL legends that Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, who is in his 16th year, can pass on the league’s all-time lists the next two weeks. Collins needs 13 completions to pass Joe Montana (3,409) for ninth all-time. If Collins throws for 334 yards in the Titans’ final two games, he’ll pass Johnny Unitas (40,239) for 11th.

3: Bills players who have endured all 14 consecutive defeats to the Patriots — punter Brian Moorman, linebacker Chris Kelsay, and cornerback Terrence McGee.

397.6: Yards per game allowed by the Redskins this season. Only nine teams in NFL history — just two since 1983 — have surrendered more. “Definitely embarrassing,’’ said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.

844: Consecutive touches without losing a fumble for Chiefs running back Thomas Jones, the second-longest streak among active players (Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, 953).

View from the outside From Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com: The Bills’ Donte Whitner leads NFL safeties in tackles on running plays with 81. Other top safety tacklers: Antoine Bethea (Colts) 62, Bernard Pollard (Texans) 61, T.J. Ward (Browns) 54, Yeremiah Bell (Dolphins) 54. For the Patriots, Patrick Chung has 43 (tied for 15th), James Sanders is tied for 53d with 24, and Brandon Meriweather has 21. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is tied for the lead among all defensive players with Redskins linebacker London Fletcher at 89 run tackles.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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