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Saints road to Super Bowl return full of potholes

All the stars and planets lined up for the New Orleans Saints in their run to the Super Bowl title last season.

Not so this year, which is why the Saints have a tough road to defending their championship. The Saints (10-4) play a huge game Monday night at Atlanta (12-2). But even if the Saints win, all Atlanta needs to do to clinch the NFC South is win its home finale against lowly Carolina.

So New Orleans will have to win three road playoff games to get back to the Super Bowl, and it's not likely to happen.

Last season the Saints had better balance on offense. They ranked sixth in rushing and fourth in passing. This year, backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush have battled injuries. New Orleans is 26th in rushing. That means more pressure on quarterback Drew Brees to carry the load. He has 19 interceptions this year. Last year he had only 11.

On defense, the Saints actually are more solid than last year, ranking ninth overall. They were 25th last season. But they were more opportunistic last year. They had the second most interceptions (26), with 34-year-old safety Darren Sharper leading the way. He had nine. This year Sharper, 35, has played only six games due to a knee injury. The Saints have the fourth-fewest interceptions (nine).

The Saints still would be tied with Atlanta for the NFC South lead if kicker Garrett Hartley hadn't missed a 29-yarder in overtime in the first meeting between the teams. But those are the kind of breaks that typically go against the defending champion, which is why the NFL has had only one repeat winner since the 1993 season. (That was the Patriots in 2003 and 2004).

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Gronkowski & red zone

New England ranks third in the NFL in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 64.3 percent of its trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line.

Part of the reason is rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski of Williamsville is so good at using his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame to box out defenders in the limited area of the field. Gronkowski has seven TD catches, third among NFL rookies.

Green Bay's assistant head coach, Winston Moss, talked to the Boston Globe about Gronkowski's ability.

"Gronkowski gets in the low red [zone], and all he does is find the coverage that relates to him, runs right at the guy, gets into the end zone, and basically plays basketball and scores a timing touchdown," Moss said.

Gronkowski is averaging about 40 plays a game this season. Fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez is averaging about 30. Hernandez is a better downfield threat. Gronkowski is more complete, with better blocking ability.

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D as in disaster

Buffalo isn't the only place where the switch from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 scheme has been a rough one. In Washington, in fact, it has gone even worse than in Buffalo.

The Bills stand 23rd in yards allowed. The Redskins are 32nd in yards allowed. The difference is Chan Gailey came to town and overhauled a defense that had not been very good in recent years. Mike Shanahan came to Washington and overhauled a defense that had been pretty solid.

The Redskins' defense ranked 10th last year and was in the top 10 five of the previous six years.

This year, Washington is allowing 397.6 yards a game. Only nine teams in NFL history -- and just two since 1983 -- have allowed more.

The big problem, of course, is a $21 million bonus wasn't enough to convince the Redskins' best run-stuffer, Al Haynesworth, to man up and accept his role on the 3-4 line. Redskins defensive end Andre Carter, who had 11 sacks last year, proved to be a poor fit in the 3-4. He has just two sacks this year.

Shanahan played a 4-3 most of his tenure in Denver but became enamored with the 3-4 during his year out of football in 2009 during visits to Pittsburgh and New England.

The Redskins won't set the record for most yards allowed. That was set by the 1981 Colts, who surrendered 424 yards a game. The 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008 gave up 404 a game.

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Onside kicks

*The NCAA is all about business when it comes to the most crucial decisions, which is why it's so easy to criticize. Five Ohio State players got suspended for five games -- next season -- because they accepted $1,000 to $2,500 in cash in exchange for Buckeyes memorabilia. Never mind that North Carolina DE Robert Quinn, a top draft prospect, was suspended for the season in October for accepting about $5,000 in goods and services. The reality is the bowl games are more or less a subsidiary of the NCAA. Ohio State fans travel extremely well. The Sugar Bowl is counting on Buckeye fans to fill the stands in New Orleans. Many fewer would show if star QB Terrelle Pryor did not play. It's doubtful a school like Texas Christian would get off as easy as Ohio State. Furthermore, ESPN is an important business partner of the NCAA. Its TV ratings would go way down if the suspensions were imposed immediately, as they should be.

*Shanahan took what sounded like an indirect shot at Donovan McNabb this week in discussing the play of Rex Grossman, who had a passer rating of 93.4 last Sunday. Said Shanahan: "[Rex] executed the offense. We have a system. You've got to go through your reads. It's very complicated to tell you what he did. He just executed. I'm looking forward to Rex showing us what he can do against a couple [possible] playoff teams [in Jacksonville and the New York Giants]."

*The Bills' finale at the Jets could get moved to an 8:20 p.m. start as part of the league's flex scheduling system to ensure NBC gets an attractive game. But there are other potentially attractive games, such as Oakland at Kansas City, which could decide the AFC West. Tennessee at Indy could decide the AFC South. We'll have to see how today's games play out.

*The AFC clinched the season title in games against the NFC. The AFC holds a 34-27 lead with only three games to play. The AFC has won the season series 25 times to just eight for the NFC, with eight seasons ending tied. The last time the NFC won was 1995.

*The prevailing view in Houston is coach Gary Kubiak still has a good chance to save his job, as long as the 5-9 Texans don't lose out. They play at Denver and home against Jacksonville. They better look decent in that home finale, however. Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush won't survive the season, even if Kubiak does.

*Kansas City's Thomas Jones last week became the 25th player to hit the 10,000-yard mark in rushing yards. Jones has 844 consecutive touches without losing a fumble.

*The Pats are 11-3 on the road in the last month of the season the past six seasons. San Diego tops that list at 11-1. Through Week 15, 10 teams have a .667 winning percentage or better on the road. That's the most since 1975.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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