Monday, December 18, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — The stage was set for yet another dismal Sunday afternoon with the Washington Redskins.

The New Orleans Saints, coming off a nationally televised rout of the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys, stood ready to clinch their first division title in six years. The Saints were playing in front of a raucous home crowd ready to celebrate and cheer away some of the pain from Hurricane Katrina.

The Saints’ underdog opponent, however, decided to spoil the party. The Redskins, 4-9 and losers of seven of their past nine games, took the lead less than five minutes into the game and never trailed.

The Saints got their division title anyway thanks to a loss by the Carolina Panthers. But the postgame party wasn’t quite as hearty after the Redskins’ stunning 16-10 victory at the Superdome.

Q: Did the Saints party too much on Bourbon Street on Saturday night? That sure wasn’t the same team I saw crunch the Cowboys.

A: No, it wasn’t. The Saints got off to a sluggish start on offense, gaining only 29 yards and picking up only one first down in the first 13 minutes. They never snapped out of it, either: The offense produced just one decent series until the fourth quarter. Drew Brees, the top passer in the league, and Reggie Bush, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, looked average.

Q: OK, the Saints had an off day. Still, how did the Redskins pull this off?

A: They used the same formula that almost beat the Eagles the previous week: plenty of Ladell Betts, a gorgeous touchdown pass by Jason Campbell and solid defense. One big difference was that the Redskins didn’t turn the ball over. They lost it twice against the Eagles, including an interception that was returned 84 yards for a touchdown.

Q: I have vague memories of Clinton Portis being the Redskins’ main man on offense. Will he be Betts’ backup when he’s healthy again next season?

A: Portis likely will remain the No. 1 back if the Redskins don’t trade him, and a deal remains a possibility. Still, Betts has been terrific the past four weeks. He certainly has earned a greater share of the workload next season.

Q: Carlos Rogers has been a stumbling, bumbling mess all season. How did he make those big plays yesterday?

A: Rogers, the ninth choice in last year’s draft, indeed had slipped from the respectable performance of his rookie year. When he wasn’t getting toasted deep, he was giving too much room on underneath routes.

This wasn’t Rogers’ first good game of late. He and Shawn Springs combined to shut down the Panthers tandem of Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson three weeks ago. Yesterday, Rogers picked off his first pass of the year and prevented Terrance Copper from catching the ball in the end zone, sealing the victory.

Q: Andre Carter came up with another sack and wouldn’t let Reggie Bush squirt free inside the red zone in the final two minutes. Is Carter not the bust I thought he was a month ago?

A: Carter still isn’t close to a $30 million player, but he has been the Redskins’ best defensive lineman the last six weeks. It looks like he’s finally comfortable attacking the ball in assistant head coach Gregg Williams’ scheme.

Q: Time for the Campbell update. How did Jason play?

A: Campbell’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss was a thing of beauty. The first-year starter made other excellent throws to Moss, Chris Cooley, Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd. However, Campbell at times also looked like a kid making his fifth start, too. He twice threw too low to Moss and had a few balls sail on him.

Q: How did the offensive line survive without Jon Jansen?

A: It was disconcerting to see someone besides No. 76 line up at right tackle, but massive Todd Wade showed why he played as a starter for six years before he ripped up his right knee last November with the Texans. And other than one botched snap, center Casey Rabach did a heck of a job playing one-handed.

Q: The Redskins went into the Superdome and beat the fired-up, surging Saints. So what will happen Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome against the faltering, fading Rams?

A: Games like yesterday’s are one reason the Monday Morning Quarterback doesn’t bet on the NFL.

The Rams possessed the worst run defense in the NFC and had lost seven of eight before they shut out the Raiders yesterday. Quarterback Marc Bulger also has questioned the heart of some of his teammates.

On paper, the Redskins should win, but the opposite wouldn’t be a big surprise, either. They won’t have the motivation of trying to spoil someone’s party.

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