Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Saints to play first New Orleans game since Katrina

'COULDN'T BE MORE EXCITED' Fans in the area have snapped up all the tickets for games at the Superdome this season after it was used to house hurricane refugees

AFP , NEW ORLEANS

Green Bay Packer Nick Barnett, 56, can't catch Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints on a punt return during the third quarter of their NFL football game on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

PHOTO: AP

A year after the Superdome became an emblem of the devastation wreaked upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the National Football League's Saints will return to their refurbished home.

The Saints will host the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night in a battle for first place in the NFC South division.

"The NFL and the New Orleans Saints have done a great job of promoting the game obviously," Saints running back Deuce McAllister said. "The city of New Orleans couldn't be more excited to show the world they're back."

The Superdome became notorious in the wake of the massive storm when it housed up to 25,000 desperate refugees in conditions that degenerated into squalor.

The Saints were forced to move their home games last season, playing four at Louisiana State University and three in San Antonio, Texas. One other "home" game was played at Giants Stadium.

But the franchise made a strong commitment to participate in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region and the fans showed their appreciation by selling out each home game this season. The rising interest has caused Saints officials to make plans for a ticket waiting list.

"We're now competing on that basis with places like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other major cities," Saints owner Tom Benson said. "This is just tremendous. Most people can't believe what people in this whole area have done."

Monday's game will mark the Superdome debut of Saints draftee Reggie Bush, who has lined up in the backfield and as a receiver and also returns punts for the Saints.

In the season-opening 19-14 win at Cleveland, Bush rushed for 61 yards on 14 carries, caught eight passes for 58 yards and returned three punts for 22 yards.

The Saints then won their second straight road game to start a season for the first time in franchise history, beating Green Bay 34-27 last week.

Bush caught eight passes for 68 yards and returned four punts for 36 yards.

Along with selecting Bush with the second overall pick in the draft, the Saints also signed quarterback Drew Brees to a six-year contract worth US$60 million. Brees threw for 353 yards and two touchdowns in the win at Green Bay.

However, beating Michael Vick and the Falcons will be difficult. Vick is 5-0 as a starter in his career against the Saints, and the Falcons have demonstrated an improved defense and a solid ground game in winning their first two games of the season.

The third week of NFL action sees a handful of teams touted as likely playoff contenders battling to get their seasons on track.

Vaunted NFC South rivals Carolina and Tampa Bay clash in a pivotal division match-up, with both seeking to avoid 0-3 starts.

Last season, the Panthers and Bucs each won 11 games. Tampa Bay won the division based on a tiebreaker, while Carolina made the playoffs as a wild card.

The Panthers, hindered by the injury absence of Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, and have so far managed just one offensive touchdown and also struggled on defense.

The Buccaneers have managed just one field goal in two games as quarterback Chris Simms has thrown three interceptions in each.

"I've made some bad throws and some stupid decisions," said Simms, who also has had seven passes batted down. "I know I know better. I know I can do better physically. That's what hurts the most."

In another clash of winless teams, Miami will host Tennessee. The Dolphins will be hoping quarterback Duante Culpepper, acquired from Minnesota in March, can turn around his nightmarish start to the season.

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