The New Orleans Saints are coming off a 45-7 pasting of the New York Giants, but strong finishes have not been the Saints' forte.
The Saints lost the chance at a playoff berth in 2001 when they lost the last four games of the season, then blew an almost-certain postseason spot in 2002 when they folded in the final three games of the year, against three losing-record teams.
Coach Jim Haslett was intent on making sure that didn't happen again this season, but, right on cue, the Saints fell out of playoff contention at home, against Tampa Bay, on the first Sunday in December.
What is it about the Saints and crunch time? Why does Haslett's team seem to die when the games count the most?
Jaguars fans will get a look at the late-season Saints this Sunday, when the two teams meet at Alltel Stadium for a game whose storyline is Mark Brunell's farewell. The postseason ceased to be an issue for the Jaguars early in the season, and the Saints have only the slimmest of playoff hopes. More realistically, the Saints are playing for a winning record.
Actually, the Saints and the Jaguars are similar in at least one respect: They each appear to have core players for their future, and the playoffs can become a reality if they can upgrade themselves in a few ways.
The Saints and the Jaguars each have sensational running backs. Deuce McAllister and Fred Taylor should provide the feature attraction this Sunday afternoon; a matchup between two of the best running backs the game has to offer.
McAllister leads the NFC in rushing. In just his second season as a full-time starter, McAllister may be on the verge of becoming the NFL's premier all-purpose player; a player who's as accomplished as a pass-receiver as he is as a rusher.
"There's a lot of me left to come," McAllister said. "I think my best years are ahead of me, if I can stay healthy. That's the key thing; if you can stay healthy and stay away from nagging injuries."
Taylor would attest to that. After missing 24 games in his first four years in the league, Taylor will make his 31st consecutive start this Sunday. As a result of his new-found durability, Taylor is embarking on the best season of his career.
Likewise, McAllister could become the Saints' all-time single-season rushing leader this Sunday, breaking George Rogers' record of 1,674 yards, set in 1981.
McAllister is the player around whom the Saints will build their teams of the future. For the Saints to become a playoff team, they must improve their run-defense, and quarterback Aaron Brooks must make that final step forward necessary for him to become one of the game's elite passers.
The great puzzle to the Saints' run-defense problems is that the team has had a very sharp focus on its defensive line in three of their last four drafts. They selected defensive end Darren Howard in the second round of the 2000 draft, took defensive end Charles Grant in the first round in '02, and made defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan the sixth player chosen in this year's draft. But, so far, no results.
Brooks rose to prominence in 2000 and continues to show flashes, but he's been as prone to bad plays as he has been to big plays. He was on his way toward a possible break-through season this year, with twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions, when he literally fumbled away the Saints' playoff chances in the 14-7 loss to the Bucs. Brooks lost three fumbles in that game – one occurred when the ball flew out of his right hand as he began his throwing motion – thus revealing a new way to lose in December.
"I'm not going to look over my shoulder. I haven't done that before and there's no reason for me to do that now," Brooks said.
But Haslett is, no doubt, looking over his shoulder. December swoons aren't conducive to job security.