Having achieved a signature franchise moment with a Monday night win over the high and mighty New England Patriots, the New Orleans Saints now get to experience another unfamiliar sensation.
A December trap game.
At 11-0 for the first time in club history, the Saints are big favorites to knock off the Washington Redskins (3-8) on Sunday.
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And for good reason. The Saints average 37 points; the Redskins can’t even score 30 in a game. The Saints will clinch the NFC South with a win; the Redskins will clinch a losing season with a loss.
New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gets to unleash nearly two years’ worth of fury, avenging his dismissal from Washington when he thought he was in line to become head coach after Joe Gibbs retired in January 2008.
But the Saints are coming off a short work week. They’re leaving the comforts of the Superdome for chilly, East Coast late autumn weather. The players are hearing talk of going 16-0, which makes it tougher to cling to the “one game at a time” mantra. The Redskins are playing as well as they have all season, beating Denver before blowing late fourth-quarter leads against Dallas and Philadelphia.
Besides, there’s no way around it: For the Saints, this game just doesn’t have the same magnitude as that 38-17 victory on Monday night. For the Redskins, however, it’s a chance to put at least one feather in the cap of an otherwise disappointing season.
“Just to get a win against any team would be great,” Washington running back Rock Cartwright said. “But a team that’s 11-0, coming in here, playing with a lot of confidence, it would be exceptionally exciting. Every team is beatable. New Orleans has some weakness that we need to try to exploit, but when you’re winning, your weaknesses don’t get magnified. But those guys are playing great over there; 11-0 speaks for itself.”
Weaknesses? OK, the Saints don’t cover punts and kickoffs particularly well. And Williams’ defense, while a vast improvement over last year’s unit, is a middle-of-the-pack bunch that can afford to take extra risks because the offense is so good. The Saints have a league-high 32 takeaways, but they rank 20th against the run.
But that’s about like saying the Mona Lisa has a tiny smudge somewhere near the edge. The overwhelming fact is the Saints are beating opponents by nearly 17 points per game.
“We’re playing good, but we need to play great,” Washington safety LaRon Landry said. “We need to be on our Ps and Qs, cross our Ts and dot them and everything.”
Plus, the Saints have plenty of veterans who know a letdown game when they see one.
“The leadership on this team is kind of too good for us to kind of take a little bit of a lull and become complacent and not look at this game as our next big game – because it is,” said New Orleans safety Darren Sharper, whose three touchdowns equal the most scored by any Redskins offensive player. “The Redskins are playing better as of late. They’re playing in their home stadium, so you know they’re going to play well. They’re playing against a team that they’re trying to get them their first loss, so there’s many factors for us to be up for this game and be prepared. We don’t believe in that type of thinking of having a trap game. Each game is a big game for us around here.”
Besides, it takes just one slip-up to ruin a shot at 16-0.
“If we can get an undefeated season and then attain that goal of winning it all,” Sharper said, “you know, if you ever talk about the perfect story, that would definitely be it.”
Coach Sean Payton has been telling his players not to “eat the cheese,” his way of advising them to guard against the hype. Asked what an unbeaten season would mean, he treated the question as if it were a hunk of cheddar sitting on a mousetrap.
“I don’t know where it fits in for us,” Payton said. “It’s not at the top of the list as much as winning this week’s game in Washington.”
This week certainly is at the top of the list for Williams, the fiery assistant who was in charge of the Redskins‘ defense from 2004-07. Williams’ temper is legendary, and both sides expect it to show as he tries to prove a point to Washington owner Dan Snyder.
“Any wrath he might have, he’ll want to unleash this Sunday,” New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita said. “I know that.”