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Saints feel this 4-4 better than last season

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The Sports Xchange

METAIRIE, La. — For a second consecutive season, the New Orleans Saints have clawed their way back from a 1-3 start to stand 4-4 at the halfway point of the season.

While they don’t go back and compare one year to another, the Saints that have been around for the past two seasons have to have a better feeling than they did a year ago when a second-half collapse resulted in a 7-9 finish.

The Saints hope to avoid that pratfall starting with Sunday’s important game with the slumbering Tennessee Titans (1-6) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. With a chance to get their heads above water, the Saints know that they must continue to stack wins together and not take a big step back.

That was the problem last season.

After working so hard to get back in the NFC South race at the midway point, the Saints stumbled to three losses in a row — all at the Superdome — that simply ruined the season and led to a massive makeover of head coach Sean Payton’s squad.

But at this point, Payton certainly isn’t looking back — only forward — in trying to get a fourth victory in a row after beating the Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants in succession for their first three-game winning streak in two years.

“They are different teams,” Payton said when asked if this year’s 4-4 will be different. “I think we say this all the time: it is the preparation for this week.

“It is not like we go back and look up in 2007 when this (another 4-4 start) happened,” he noted. “This is a different group in this locker room, different offense, different defense. The key is understanding in a two-day period the opponent we’re playing and trying to digest that and understand how we’re going to apply a game plan.”

That has to be the focus going into the game with the Titans, who fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt on Tuesday and named Mike Mularkey as interim coach for the remainder of the season.

“I think getting ourselves mentally and physically ready to play, there’s still that edge that you have to be able to play this game with,” said Payton, whose team is coming off an exhilarating 52-49 victory over the Giants. “It’s an emotional, mental mindset — something we’ve been better at of late.”

Making sure his team is on point is important, Payton said, considering the coaching change the Titans just went through. He’s seen enough of them to know that a jolt like that often affects a team’s preparation for its next game.

“There have been a handful of examples and all of a sudden you have a new head coach and maybe he is on the offensive or defensive side of the ball and there will be some wrinkles,” he said. “There will be some things we have not seen, just like there are every week.”

But the Saints, who have won four of their last five games, do have that positive energy to help them out although Payton isn’t counting on that.

“You can’t just throw the ball out there and say we know how to win,” he said. “It’s something that’s ongoing, and there are a lot of things on the tape from last week that obviously need to be cleaned up.”

SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Titans lead series, 7-5-1. The Saints won a thriller in the last matchup of the teams, 22-17, on Dec. 11, 2011 in Nashville when the defense turned back the Titans’ offense after reaching the New Orleans 24 and 5 on its last two drives. The Saints first stopped the Titans on a fourth-and-inches play, then survived two passes into the end zone with seven seconds remaining to preserve the win and snap a four-game losing streak against Tennessee since its move from Houston in 1996.

GAME PLAN

–The Saints have been getting better at running the football, which could come in handy Sunday when their second-ranked passing offense goes against the Titans’ third-ranked pass defense. Head coach Sean Payton will no doubt try the run first to loosen the Titans up after moving up from near the bottom of the league rankings to a tie for 21st with 99.3 yards per game. The Saints threw the ball all over the Superdome last week, but they won’t mind one bit if Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller can do some damage on the ground first — especially with the Titans allowing just 197.9 yards per game through the air.

The Saints’ defense doesn’t know if it will be facing Marcus Mariota or Zach Mettenberger, but it really doesn’t matter. They’ve gained some steam with a better pass rush and have played better even though they gave up 350 passing yards and six touchdowns against Eli Manning a week ago. The Titans have been woeful offensively in ranking 31st in total yards at 309.9 yards per game and 28th in passing with 209.7 yards per outing. The running game fares only slightly better at 19th with 100.1 yards per game, which is 31st in scoring with 17.9 points a game. Getting off the field will be big for the Saints, who rank among the league leaders in allowing the opponent to convert just 31.9 percent of the time on third down.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Saints RBs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller vs. Titans front seven.

The Saints got off to a terrible start on the ground, but have come on strong since doing much better in the second half of an Oct. 15 game with the Atlanta Falcons, which has one of the better run defenses in the NFL. In the last 2 1/2 games, the Saints have 82 carries for 349 yards and a 4.3 average with Ingram and Spiller doing most of that damage. Getting them into the second level against the Titans will be a key to opening up the passing game.

–Saints RDE Cameron Jordan vs. Titans LT Taylor Lewan.

Jordan, the Saints’ best pass rusher, has been re-energized and has six sacks with five of them coming in the last three games. Lewan will have to be at his best to keep the powerful Jordan from getting free shots at quarterback Marcus Mariota, who could be back after missing the last two games with a knee injury. Having opportunities to get to Mariota, who may be a little bit rusty after sitting on the sideline for two weeks, could motivate Jordan even more.


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