Offensive tackle Wayne Gandy says the New Orleans Saints have been toughened by their early-season experiences.
"This team is totally different than other Saints teams," Gandy said after Sunday's 19-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills here at the Alamodome. "There's a resolve to this team."
The Saints have been underachievers in recent seasons, and only a four-game winning streak at the end of last season -- evening the club's record at 8-8 -- enabled Coach Jim Haslett to keep his job. But that was before the Saints were displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, ultimately setting up shop in San Antonio and resolving to play in a fashion that makes their fans back home proud of them.
"Good or bad, this team is going to fight until the end," Gandy said. "If anything has come out of this mayhem, it's what this team seems to be. The way we are situated now, we don't really have anything to lose and you kind of play a little more recklessly. Even in the losses, you saw guys still playing hard. . . . We have a good, talented team. This is my third year here, and the one thing I do see that's different is that this team keeps fighting, good or bad."
The Saints felt right at home Sunday in front of a supportive crowd at the Alamodome. It was the first time since Katrina hit that they didn't have to board a plane to go play a game, and they responded with a sharp performance that included no turnovers and only four penalties.
"The traveling has taken a toll on us," Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks said. "[Sunday] we felt great because we didn't travel."
The feeling inside the Saints' locker room is that the NFL hasn't done them any favors throughout their ordeal. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue ordered the team to play its first scheduled home game of the season in Giants Stadium against the New York Giants -- "that still eats the [expletive] out of me," Haslett said Sunday -- and wanted the club to play the majority of its seven remaining home games in Baton Rouge, La.
Tagliabue didn't want the Saints to abandon Louisiana. The Saints coaches and players felt that same obligation to the team's home state but also felt that, for competitive purposes, they would have been better off playing the majority of their home games in San Antonio, where they now live and practice. It was clear Sunday that the Saints and the city that has adopted them have become quite fond of one another quickly.
"It made me feel like I was in New Orleans again," defensive end Charles Grant said. "I think that's what we really needed for us to get that spirit back. The fans here in San Antonio are just great. The atmosphere here was wonderful. I hope we have it like that every game we play here."
Said wide receiver Donte Stallworth: "They've embraced us. Everybody here has really embraced us. New Orleans is still cheering for us and now we have San Antonio on our side, too."
The Saints won for the first time since their season-opening triumph at Carolina and evened their record at 2-2.
"It's a start," tailback Deuce McAllister said. "You have to start somewhere, and it's a good start for us."
Said Haslett: "The teams we have to beat, we have to play coming up -- Tampa Bay and Atlanta in a couple weeks. But in the meantime, we've got to stay in the hunt. We've got to stay close."
McAllister Grinds Out Yards
On Sunday, the Saints got back to the formula they used in the opener against the Panthers -- handing the ball early and often to McAllister and giving Brooks fewer opportunities to make costly mistakes. Against the Bills, McAllister ran for 130 yards on 27 carries. By the fourth quarter, he was running right through tackle attempts by weary Buffalo defenders.
"We knew if we could keep pounding, sooner or later he would get some yardage," Haslett said. " . . . We played like we wanted to play. . . . That's how we played against Carolina. It's not how we played the two previous games."
The Saints also got a major contribution by Stallworth, who had eight catches for 129 yards. Stallworth came through as Brooks's main target on a day when wideout Joe Horn was on the inactive list because of a hamstring injury. He dropped a pass by Brooks that was right in his chest early on, but rebounded after Brooks and Horn gave him hang-in-there talks on the sideline.
"He had a rough first quarter, but he came up in a big way," Brooks said. "I told him, 'Just relax. It's going to be okay.' And he did. He made some plays out there. I'm happy for him. He's at that point where he's stepping up."
The Bills are, not surprisingly, taking their lumps as quarterback J.P. Losman endures some growing pains. Coach Mike Mularkey sat down Losman in the fourth quarter Sunday after the second-year pro completed only seven of 15 passes for 75 yards and was sacked three times.
Veteran Kelly Holcomb got nothing started in the fourth quarter, though, and Mularkey said after the game that Losman remains the Bills' starter.
"J.P.'s the starter and I'm going with J.P.," Mularkey said. "I think everyone understands that. . . . It [the fourth-quarter quarterback switch] was just trying to get a change of pace."
The Bills finished last season strong under former starter Drew Bledsoe but decided in the offseason to go with Losman, a first-round draft choice last year. Bledsoe was released after declining to take a pay cut to remain in the fold as Losman's backup and mentor, and Holcomb was signed as a free agent.
Losman was solid in this season's opening win over the Houston Texans, but he has struggled mightily since then. The Bills, however, have tied their long-term fortunes to Losman's development, and Mularkey said he didn't think that Sunday's benching had shaken Losman's confidence.
"If he is, I'm not seeing it," Mularkey said. "He's a competitor and obviously anyone in that position would be affected by it. But I haven't seen it mentally and I don't foresee it happening."
The most curious decision made by Mularkey and his staff Sunday was giving the ball to tailback Willis McGahee only 11 times after he had five carries on the Bills' opening touchdown drive. McGahee finished the game with 16 carries for 84 yards.
"I'll have to look at the whole breakdown of . . . the play calls, the game and how it unfolded," Mularkey said. "We can always look back and say, 'We should have done this or done that.' I thought we ran the ball well. It's easy to say . . . we should have done it more."
MRI for Vick
Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam on the injury to his right knee that he suffered during Sunday's win over Minnesota.
Vick left the game after being hurt on a second-quarter hit by Vikings defensive end Erasmus James. The team indicated that Vick suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament, an injury that sometimes requires surgery and a 2-4 week recovery period. Some players have been sidelined for longer than that with the injury because of significant tearing of the MCL.
But other players have continued to play with such an injury without missing any time, and Falcons Coach Jim Mora told reporters after the game Sunday that Vick's injury did not appear to be serious. The key, of course, is whether the MRI reveals any damage to Vick's anterior cruciate ligament; a torn ACL would end Vick's season.
Matt Schaub replaced Vick on Sunday, and the second-year quarterback would become Atlanta's starter if Vick is sidelined.