January 19, 2006

Notes Leading Up To The NFC Championship Game

Injury report, coaching news to prepare for Saints' first conference champ appearance

Biggest game: The Saints have had some huge games from a franchise standpoint in the past two seasons. The three LSU games were pivotal for public opinion. The Giants "home" fundraising game, the Superdome home opener, the first Eagles game, the crucial Giants game only a month ago, and of course last week's divisional playoff hosting and pounding of the Eagles.

But this is the biggest game yet for the roller coaster Saints franchise. The deepest playoff run yet for the Saints, way out in front and in the national spotlight like no other time in team history.

And the pressure is on, not only because its a big game on the field, but its a winnable game. Large swaths of the national media are booking the Saints' travel plans for Miami, and the top offense in the league is facing hostile fans, hostile atmospheric conditions and - packing on the most pressure - a defeatable Chicago defense.

Injury Report: As they have been for multiple consecutive weeks, S Omar Stoutmire and WR Joe Horn are listed on the injury report and questionable. We still don't know if Horn, who has been seated by the coaching staff since December despite an almost healed groin muscle tear, will play in the championship game. Horn has been working only limitedly this past week. Stoutmire's injury - now identified as a hip problem - has been forcing Jay Bellamy into starting action, but allowed him to practice most of this week.

Earlier in the week, TE Mark Campbell was upgraded to probable with his lingering knee injury, but it has been weeks since Campbell played a complete game and he hasn't caught more than one pass in a game in almost seven weeks. The cold weather shouldn't be much of a problem for Campbell, who played collegiately at Michigan and professionally in Buffalo and Cleveland.

The Bears are listing WR Mark Bradley, the second-fastest of Chicago's receiving corp behind Bernard Berrian, as questionable. Bradley twisted his ankle last week in the rough Chicago natural sod, which claimed more than one sprained ankle in the game. Expect more of the same for both teams, but especially for the Saints who haven't yet experienced the re-sodded grass.

Oakland: Sean Payton turned down the Oakland Raider head coaching job two years ago, opting instead to remain under Bill Parcells and hone his skills for a better future job. Last year, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino turned down an offer from the Raiders, and last week was named the Falcons head coach. Nowadays, less prestigious candidates are turning down Al Davis, such as USC offensive assistant Steve Sarkisian and Chargers assistant Jason Lofton. Furthermore, former Arizona coach Dennis Green refuses to interview in Oakland. The only other candidates they've interviewed are former Giants head coach and Ravens assistant Jim Fassel and their own defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Two Back Attack: All four conference finalists employ two runningbacks, a concept that will not go overlooked next season and a growing trend. The Patriots employ rookie Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon in starter-reliever fashion, as do the Bears with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. The Colts use rookie Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes in different modes, Addai is more powerful while Rhodes is more shifty. The Saints take that approach to the next level, with steamrolling Deuce McAllister and ultra-versatile Reggie Bush. Only the Patriots lacked a 1000-yard rusher between their two, but they did the best job splitting the carries with Dillon carrying the ball only 24 more times than Maroney.

Chicago got 1857 yards on the ground out of their two backs, the Colts 1722, the Saints 1622, and the Patriots 1557. None of the four conference finalists finished in the top 10 of rushing teams in the league. New England's two backs also accounted for the more rushing touchdowns together, 19, than the other teams. Bush and McAllister combined for the next best with 16, while Indianapolis and Chicago each got 12 rushing TD's out of their two back platoons.

Weather report: Snow is expected to hit Chicago Sunday morning, and continue - even if lightly - though the afternoon. The last time the Saints played in the playoffs in Chicago, on January 6, 1991, the weather was 22 degrees and partly cloudy. The Saints were held to six field goals and six first downs.

Playoff Pay: The Saints players will be paid $37,000 a head for competing in the conference championship game.

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