Saints look for better things after the bye week

Updated: November 8, 2003, 3:22 PM ET

NEW ORLEANS -- After late-season slumps the last two years, the New Orleans Saints hit the bye week looking for a late rally.

New Orleans had its roughest start under coach Jim Haslett, losing four of the first five games. Injuries hit the team hard, but surprisingly, the Saints still have a shot at the playoffs and feel a week of rest is just what's needed to launch a stretch run.

The injuries that at one time sidelined seven defensive starters are beginning to heal. The schedule, the toughest in the NFL over the first nine games, gets easier. And, after an early tailspin, New Orleans (4-5) has played well enough in the last four games to stay alive in the playoff race.

"We won three out of four," said Haslett. "That's something to build off of. We are in a good situation."

The victories have given the Saints new confidence, especially the 17-14 win against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.

"That win was really important to us," said Saints cornerback Ashley Ambrose. "After the loss to Carolina, if we had lost to Tampa Bay it would be hard in your mind not to write the season off. Now we feel like we've got a chance."

Coming off a heartbreaking 23-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers in overtime, New Orleans rallied to beat the Bucs in the closing minutes. The Saints did it despite the first-half losses of linebacker Darrin Smith and cornerback Dale Carter, which left the injury-riddled defense with just 19 able-bodied players by game's end.

"If you didn't play in that game, you can't know how rough it was," said Ambrose, who returned one of his two interceptions 73 yards for a touchdown. "Knowing we made it through all of it and won, it is going to help us a lot."

There were 12 players with new injuries after the game; all but one are expected back when New Orleans plays Atlanta on Nov. 16.

With the victory, the new bumps, bruises, scrapes, strains and pulls don't really matter. What the team focused on was the win and what it meant.

"It's a good way to go into the bye week," said kicker John Carney, who's 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left clinched the Tampa Bay win. "It brings a little momentum, a little optimism. Hope is alive and we're still in the race."

The Saints should have two more defensive starters back following the bye. End Darren Howard, out since the first game with a broken wrist, will return to practice next week. Linebacker Sedrick Hodge, who has not played since the second week because of a fractured kneecap, is expected to play against Atlanta.

The Saints trail Carolina and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Overall, they are behind nine teams in the hunt for six playoff spots, but New Orleans plays four of those teams -- Dallas, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants -- in the last seven games.

The combined record of the Saints' first nine opponents is 42-30. Down the stretch New Orleans will play teams with a 24-32 record.

"We're going to have to play at a high level," said Haslett. "But we really hold our fate in our hands.

"I think we can get better. I like the way we played physically (against the Bucs). We played with a lot of passion on the road after a tough loss to Carolina. That says a lot about your team."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index