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  Posted: Wednesday January 09, 2002 5:38 PM

Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three questions that matter to fans:

 1  1. What's the deal in New Orleans, where the Saints collapsed down the stretch to give the Giants a run for their money as the NFL's most disappointing team in 2001? 

  Jim Haslett Jim Haslett
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Thanks to those four consecutive losses to close the season, me oh my, things are a little iffy down on the bayou. Both head coach Jim Haslett and general manager Randy Mueller were being hailed at this time last year for leading the Saints back to the playoffs. Now, both are entering the third and final year of their contracts, with no sign of extension talks in sight.

Owner Tom Benson wants both of them around, but he got burned the last time he handed out a contract extension -- late in the Mike Ditka era -- so don't look for him to open the coffers any time soon. Even though head coaches traditionally aren't forced to work in lame-duck years, Haslett will grin and bear it.

He wouldn't have been in that situation had his club not folded like a lawn chair in the final four weeks. The Saints went from 7-5 and in contention to 7-9 and in disarray in the blink of an eye. Most alarming was New Orleans' defensive collapse. The Saints gave up 40 points per game in those four losses, with the offense contributing just 52 total points in the same span.

Observers believe Mueller will sit tight this year and take his best shot to win in 2002, with perhaps less concern for the salary-cap ramifications than he might otherwise have. Then he'll explore all options available to him next year. But don't rule out something before that. With the Saints facing stadium and financial issues, and Benson being somewhat frustrating to work for, it's a good bet New Orleans won't be in Mueller's long-term future.

In terms of Haslett's coaching staff, some changes are expected in the coming week. Defensive coordinator Ron Zook left Wednesday to take the University of Florida head coaching job. The Saints could merely elevate assistant head coach/secondary coach Rick Venturi to the coordinator position, or lure a young, up-and-coming coach away from another team, give him the title and still have Venturi calling the shots.

Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy is thought to be in some trouble, given quarterback Aaron Brooks' inconsistent season. But Haslett remains high on him and that means McCarthy is probably safe. The same can not be said for some position coaches, quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti and receivers coach Hubbard Alexander among them.


 2  As the playoffs beckon, is there a team more in desperate need of its swagger than the defending Super Bowl champions? 

  Brian Billick Brian Billick
Tom Pidgeon/Allsport

In a word, no. Baltimore finally squeaked into the playoffs with its sloppy Monday-night win against the woeful Minnesota Vikings, but the Ravens advanced with more of a whimper than a bang.

Baltimore is a shell of the confident team that strutted into last year's post-season on the strength of seven consecutive victories. This season, the Ravens alternated wins and losses in the season's final five weeks, with no semblance of offensive consistency.

Baltimore's problem on offense is rather obvious: Head coach Brian Billick can't afford to put a game in the hands of quarterback Elvis Grbac. Thus, the Ravens are back where they were last year, having to win with defense and a running game, hoping that their quarterback can just manage to not lose it for them.

But here's the scary part: Grbac is no Trent Dilfer when it comes to being safe with the football and managing a lead. And try as he might to Dilferize himself in time for the playoffs, Grbac's confidence is so shaky right now that nobody in his own locker room is putting much faith in his ability to steady his own game.

Baltimore's running game showed real strength against the Vikings, gaining more than 200 yards and largely taking the burden off Grbac's shoulders. That's the good news. But the Ravens won't be able to get by with that alone against Miami's defense, which is capable of shutting down Terry Allen & Co. for an afternoon.

That's why Grbac has to step up and make a few things happen if the Ravens' title defense is to go anywhere. With a defense that's playing well, but clearly not dominating at last year's level, the Ravens have a razor-thin margin of error this January.


 3  Which road team has best chance to pull the upset in this weekend's wild-card games? 

  Vinny Testaverde Vinny Testaverde
Eliot Schechter/Allsport

Since the NFL expanded its playoff field to four wild-card games in 1990, road teams are just 12-32 (.273) in the wild-card round. Still, until last year, when all four home teams triumphed, at least one road team had won every year from 1990-99. From 1993-99, road teams went 1-3 each year in the wild-card round.

A year ago, the experts all agreed: All four road wild-card teams had a great shot of winning. Remember? Denver was going to beat Baltimore, Indianapolis had won just two weeks earlier at Miami, the Rams were hotter than the Saints, and the Bucs' defense was the key to victory at Philadelphia. Things didn't turn out that way, did they?

That said, we like the Jets chances of winning in Oakland better than any other wild-card roadie. Next up in terms of upset probability, we'd rate it Baltimore, Tampa Bay and then San Francisco (nobody gets out of Lambeau alive in January).

New York obviously proved it can negate the Raiders' home-field advantage last week. While the Jets probably can't turn the ball over three times again and get away with it on the strength of John Hall's booming right leg, New York can win with a game plan built around Curtis Martin running it down the throats of Oakland's cushy-soft rush defense.

Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde must play a smart game and feed Martin as much as possible. New York's defense has to keep the pressure on Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, who was hounded and confused by game's end last week.

The Raiders have looked like an old, tired team for more than a month now, and must be feeling the pressure of a once-promising season turned sour. On the other hand, if the Jets can handle the rigors of a second cross-country flight in less than a week, they may find that last Sunday's near-death experience gives them a nothing-left-to-lose attitude in this year's Super Bowl tournament.


 
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