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Sunday Playbook: Saints back in playoff hunt

Every season, it seems, we’re watching another late-season NFL tightrope act. Usually it’s the San Diego Chargers trying to dig out of a deep hole they created for themselves after a poor start. Sometimes – last season, for example – it’s the New York Giants trying to come back from a midseason swoon.

This time it’s the New Orleans Saints. First it was Bountygate and the suspension of head coach Sean Payton and others that distracted the Saints. Then, four losses to open the season threatened to quash any playoff hopes they had.

The Saints, however, have battled back to even their record at 5-5, and, despite a defense that ranks last in the league in yards allowed, they’re back in playoff contention.

“We stuck together as a team, and we know that we can achieve great things if we stick together and continue this grind,” said Saints veteran safety Roman Harper.

To do it, New Orleans will have to overcome what is perhaps the league’s hottest team, the San Francisco 49ers, today in New Orleans. The Niners are No. 2 in total defense behind Pittsburgh and their defense has allowed only 12 touchdowns all season.

The Week 12 lineup:

Game of the day

Packers (7-3) at Giants (6-4)

TV: Ch. 2, 8:20 p.m.

The line: Giants (-3)

The scoop: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is 2-0 with 8-1 TD-INT ratio and 121.2 passer rating versus Giants in regular season, but lost to Big Blue in the last playoffs. … Two-game losing streak has Gotham fans worried. … Green Bay defense has slipped to 16th in league.

Outlook: It’s time for Giants to knuckle down. New York, 33-27.

Top attractions

49ers (7-2-1) at Saints (5-5)

TV: Ch. 29, 4:25 p.m.

The line: 49ers (-1)

The scoop: Niners looked super in demolishing Bears on Monday night behind backup QB Colin Kaepernick. Now they face a real offense and a real quarterback (Drew Brees) on the road in noisy Superdome. … Conveniently overlooked is Niners’ win in playoffs last January.

Outlook: Looking for an offensive show like 49ers’ 36-32 win in 2011 playoffs. Saints, 35-31.

Bills (4-6) at Colts (6-4)

TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Colts (-3)

The scoop: Has Bills’ defense really awoken or was Miami game just a tease? … Buffalo gets first-hand look at Andrew Luck, and it may be painful. Stephon Gilmore probably will get to cover Reggie Wayne, but look for rookie T.Y. Hilton to run free.

Outlook: Indy is 4-1 at home, with only loss to Jaguars. How did that happen? Colts, 27-20.

Falcons (9-1) at Buccaneers (6-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Falcons (-1)

The scoop: This should be fun. Bucs have scored 205 points in last six games. Downfield passing game is electrifying with Vincent Jackson leading league with 20.5 receiving average and Riverside grad Mike Williams next (17.6). … Matt Ryan of Falcons coming off dreadful (5 INTs) game against Arizona last week.

Outlook: There are doubts about Falcons. Bucs, 33-30.

Vikings (6-4) at Bears (7-3)

TV: Ch. 29, 1 p.m.

The line: Bears (-7)

The scoop: Chicago has won last five over Vikes since Brett Favre led 36-10 Minny rout in '09. … Bears coming off 32-7 pasting at San Francisco, while Vikings won at Detroit.

Outlook: Looking for Chicago “D” to rise up at home after two straight losses. Bears, 20-16.

Seahawks (6-4) at Dolphins (4-6)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-3)

The scoop: Seahawks must feel like they spend all of September, October, November and December on a jet. They make long haul cross country to play in Miami heat. … Dolphins in a bit of disarray with Reggie Bush and rookie QB Ryan Tannehill struggling, but defense is tough to run against.

Outlook: Defense and home advantage favors Miami. Dolphins, 17-16.

Best of the rest

Steelers (6-4) at Browns (2-8)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-1)

The scoop: Third-stringer Charlie Batch starts for Steelers at QB. Pittsburgh was unable to generate much scoring with Byron Leftwich at helm in Sunday night loss to Ravens. … Browns keep putting up good fight each week. Worst loss was by 14 at the Giants. … WR Plaxico Burress makes return to Steelers.

Outlook: Cleveland due for some breaks and Steelers are vulnerable right now. Browns, 17-14.

Titans (4-6) at Jaguars (1-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Titans (-4)

The scoop: Still trying to explain how Jaguars rang up 34 points against Wade Phillips’ mighty Texans defense last week. … Titans think they are still a playoff contender, but schedule is tough except for another game against Jaguars. Chad Henne, who threw four TD passes against Houston, will get start at QB for Jags with Blaine Gabbert out.

Outlook: Can’t see Jaguars going all-in two weeks in a row, especially in front of passionless home crowd. Titans, 24-14.

Broncos (7-3) at Chiefs (1-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Broncos (-10½)

The scoop: First meeting of season between AFC West rivals. Folks in K.C. really hate the Broncos. … Denver looking for sixth win in a row. … Broncos RB Willis McGahee out for season with knee injury.

Outlook: Looking for Denver to have a little letdown. Broncos, 31-27.

Ravens (7-2) at Chargers (4-6)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Ravens (-1)

The scoop: Ravens coming off emotional win at Pittsburgh while Bolts have forgotten how to win. Their only wins in last seven games were over Chiefs.

Outlook: Baltimore may be looking ahead to return game with Pittsburgh and Chargers may be ready to unravel. Ravens, 28-20.

Raiders (3-7) at Bengals (5-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Bengals (-8½)

The scoop: Two of Oakland wins are over K.C. and Jacksonville. … Raiders are injured and lacking talent plus rookie head coach Dennis Allen may be in over his head. … Bengals have won last two after losing four straight.

Outlook: Raiders really struggling. Bengals, 31-13.

Panthers (2-8) at Eagles (3-7)

TV: ESPN, Monday, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Panthers (-3)

The scoop: Eagles waiting for word on Michael Vick’s return from concussion as morbid watch over coach Andy Reid’s imminent demise goes on in Philadelphia. … Panthers had Bucs on ropes last week and blew it.

Outlook: Philadelphia pass protection in tatters, but Eagles, 23-16.

Dog of the day

Rams (3-6-1) at Cardinals (4-6)

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

The line: Cardinals (-1½)

The scoop: Rams virtually handed game to visiting Jets last week while Cards mustered only 178 yards of offense and still almost beat the Falcons in Atlanta.

Outlook: Looking for Rams’ Sam Bradford to outperform whoever Cardinals put out at QB (Paul Christman?). Rams, 17-13.

Last week’s results: 12-1 outright, 8-4-1 versus spread.

Season’s record: 89-59-1 outright, 68-78-4 versus spread.