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Saints receivers present a challenge for the Patriots secondary

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The 2-7 Saints have been through a lot this season. For a team that doesn't even have a home, just getting a win at this point in the year would be a positive step. The Saints won't be playing any playoff games in 2005 so their playoffs are this Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champions.

On paper, the Saints appear to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the Patriots. New Orleans has struggled on the "road" this year. Road meaning games played at other team's stadiums, seeing the Saints have officially been on the road all season long. However, for a Patriots defense that ranks 31st in the NFL in both total defense and defending the pass, the Saints have some firepower on offense that could give the Pats trouble if they get things rolling.

"They have some very good skill players offensively," head coach Bill Belichick said. "They are a very explosive group with a lot of big-play guys."

The Patriots weakness this season has been in the secondary due to all of the injuries in the defensive backfield. Luckily for the Saints, the strength of their team is at the receiver position. Joe Horn is one of the NFL's most explosive receivers. Horn has missed four games with an ankle injury but he is still the team's most dangerous offensive weapon. He currently ranks second on the team with 24 receptions for 346 yards.

In Horn's absence, fourth-year receiver Donte' Stallworth has stepped up big for the Saints. The speedy Stallworth leads the team with 38 receptions for 548 yards and three scores. Stallworth will be a tough matchup for Ellis Hobbs. Hobbs played well at the end of the Miami game but with his blazing speed, Stallworth presents the rookie with a different kind of challenge than the Dolphins Marty Booker, who is primarily a possession receiver.

"Stallworth is having a career year," Belichick said. "He's very talented. He's thick. He isn't 220 pounds like Booker is but he is a solid guy. He's smooth, fast, has good quickness. He's very good after the catch. He gets the ball in his hands and that's not the end of the play by any means."

When quarterback Aaron Brooks is on his game, Horn and Stallworth are one of the most dangerous receiving tandems in the NFL. The key to the Saints success this Sunday is the play of the their signal caller. While the Patriots secondary has struggled this season, so has Brooks. He has only thrown seven touchdowns while tossing 12 interceptions and his quarterback rating coming into the game is an unimpressive 66.6.

Brooks is a streaky quarterback. When he's hot, he can put up big numbers but when he's cold, he can have some really bad games. So far this season, Brooks has been cold many more times than he's been hot. The Patriots are hoping Brooks doesn't catch fire this week.

"They have a very athletic quarterback who can make a lot of plays," Belichick said. "They don't have to back away from anyone. Talent wise, they can match up with any team in the league."

The Saints added another receiving weapon this offseason, signing former Ram and Lion Az Hakim. Hakim has done a good job for the Saints working out of the slot this year, catching 18 balls for 303 yards and a touchdown. Hakim's speed and quickness makes him a tough matchup for nickel backs and that could spell problems for a Patriots secondary that has lost six players to injury this season.

Belichick has a lot of respect for the Saints receiving corps as a whole and he knows the challenge his defense faces this week.

"They're receivers are good," he said. "Horn, Stallworth, Hakim, they're all good and they all make big plays in the passing game that we are going to have to defend."

The Patriots are coming off a game where they gave up 360 passing yards to Gus Frerotte, one of the lowest rated passers in the NFL. With this speedy group of receivers, New England is going to have to prevent the big play, something they haven't done well this season with all the shuffling going on in the secondary.

The Saints have gone through a lot this season but a victory over the defending Super Bowl champions would be a bright moment in an otherwise dark year. Whether or not the Patriots can control the Saints receivers will go a long way in deciding if New Orleans can pull off the upset on Sunday.

Patriots lose two more, add Hawkins and Mruczkowski
The injury parade continued for the Pats on Tuesday when starting center Dan Koppen and defensive back Randall Gay were placed on injured reserve, ending their 2005 seasons. Koppen has started 40 consecutive regular season games for the Patriots and Gay becomes the sixth defensive back the team has lost since the start of the year. The team filled the roster spots by signing cornerback Artrell Hawkins and center Gene Mruczkowski.

Hawkins is in his eighth season. He has played in 103 games, including 76 starts for the Bengals and Panthers. The 5-10, 190 pound Hawkins has registered 404 tackles, three sacks and 10 interceptions in his career. Hawkins was a second round draft pick of the Bengals in 1999 and served as the Panthers nickel back last season. He was signed by the Redskins this offseason but was released on Aug. 27. Hawkins should see time in the Patriots nickel and dime packages on defense.

Mruczkowski is making his second stop in New England this season. Mruczkowski played 10 games with the Patriots in 2004. The team released him on Sept. 3 and re-signed on Sept. 28. Mruczkowski was then released again on Oct. 8. He will provide depth at the center position behind new starter Russ Hochstein.

Notes
The Patriots lead the all-time series with the Saints 7-3…Seven different players have started at safety for the Patriots this season…The team has gone five consecutive weeks with a different starter at strong safety…Tom Brady leads the NFL with 2,560 passing yards…When asked at his Wednesday press conference what his criteria would be for attempting a two-point conversion at the end of the game like Bucs coach Jon Gruden did, Belichick answered, "I think it comes down to how good I feel about the play we have for that situation. How successful you think that play will be."

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