- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

The New Orleans Saints seemingly had it all.
The offense boasted fine young quarterback Aaron Brooks, gifted and versatile running back Ricky Williams, proven receivers Joe Horn and Willie Jackson and one of the game's top pair of tackles, Willie Roaf and Kyle Turley.
The defense featured perhaps the league's best front four with Joe Johnson, La'Roi Glover, Norman Hand and Darren Howard, speedy linebackers Charlie Clemons, Keith Mitchell and Darrin Smith and ballhawking safety Sammy Knight. Kicker John Carney had an 11-year track record of success. All but Roaf, who went down with a knee injury at midseason, have played each week.
Couple all of that talent with the confidence derived from the first division title and first playoff victory in the franchise's 34 seasons and the Saints should have been marching to the Super Bowl, which will be played in their stadium.
Instead they could be eliminated from playoff consideration even before they take the Superdome field tomorrow night against the visiting Washington Redskins. New Orleans (7-7) will be done if Tampa Bay (8-6) beats defending champion Baltimore tonight because the Buccaneers crushed the Saints 48-21 in last Sunday's virtual playoff showdown.
"After that game, I felt as bad as I've ever felt," said second-year Saints coach Jim Haslett, whose team was down 14-0 with just 4:50 elapsed. "I've lost four AFC championship games [as a player and coach], but they didn't hurt as bad as this one. We couldn't do anything right. When we finally got things rolling, it was way too late. I don't know what to attribute it to. You just have to move on. We still have a flickering of hope."
The Saints' only hope is if the Bucs lose to the Ravens and to Philadelphia while the Saints beat the Redskins and win their finale against 11-3 San Francisco. It's hard to believe that just 13 days ago the Saints were in good shape at 7-5 with three of their final four games at home.
But New Orleans lost to archrival St. Louis 34-21 in its first Monday night game in seven years partly because of 16 penalties, one shy of the team record. And then came the Bucs, one of seven teams among the Saints' final 11 opponents who are likely headed for postseason.
"We had our destiny in our hands and let it fall out," Haslett said. "We've been inconsistent. We've played really good football at times and we've played poor football at times. For us to be a good team, we've got to cut out penalties and eliminate turnovers."
The Saints certainly haven't done those things in committing 108 penalties, more than any teams except 1-13 Detroit and 2-12 Buffalo, and losing 25 turnovers, a total topped by only three of the other 15 teams still in the playoff hunt. And despite being tied for second in the league with 49 sacks and ranking a solid 11th in run defense, New Orleans has allowed more points than any teams except hapless Detroit, Buffalo and Carolina and defenseless Minnesota and Indianapolis.
"We're not that bad a team, but we've been shooting ourselves in the foot," said Brooks, who's on pace to pass for an impressive 4,098 yards and 28 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. "We're a pretty good team. We proved that last year. In terms of what we did last year, we've underachieved. Hopefully, we can learn from this experience."
The Saints also are a victim of winning too quickly. Expectations were quite low for Haslett and new general manager Randy Mueller last season after New Orleans had finished 3-13 under Mike Ditka and Bill Kuharich in 1999, completing a four-year 18-46 swoon. But despite losing Williams in Week 10 and veteran quarterback Jeff Blake in Week 11, the Saints won three of their final five games to finish atop the NFC West at 10-6 and then ousted the defending champion Rams from the playoffs before losing at Minnesota.
"If we win our next two games, we're only one game off what we did last year," Haslett said. "We're still in the process of building a team."

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