Spotlight is on Rams, Saints

Monday, December 17, 2001

NEW ORLEANS -- The Rams are in familiar territory. This will be the third time this season St. Louis, with the best offense and one of the best records in the NFL, has played on Monday night.

The New Orleans Saints, still trying to shake off their image as league doormat, are making their first Monday night appearance since 1994.

"I think it's great for the city that you have a chance to show your team," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "And you're playing probably the best team in the National Football League on Monday night. Two teams that probably don't like each other that much."

Tonight's game will also match two teams with a lot riding on a victory.

St. Louis (10-2) will clinch its third consecutive playoff berth with a win or tie. The Rams also need a victory to keep them on track for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Saints (7-5) currently have the sixth-best record in the NFC -- one-half game ahead of Tampa Bay -- and only six teams from each conference go to the playoffs. A loss would drop New Orleans back into a tie with Tampa Bay, and possibly leave Atlanta and Washington in the hunt for the final playoff spot.

Big game for all

"It's a big game for us and gives us an opportunity to move that much more forward in the division and in the conference," St. Louis receiver Torry Holt said. "We're looking forward to it and they're trying to keep their playoff hopes alive, so it will be intense."

All the games between the Rams and Saints lately have been intense.

New Orleans has beaten St. Louis three of their last four games, including in the playoffs last year and early this season when the Saints rallied from a 24-6 deficit for a 34-31 victory.

Competing in the same division started the rivalry, Saints defensive lineman Norman Hand said. It was fueled by the close games in the past two years -- all of which were decided by seven or fewer points.

"It's what both teams are after that is going to make this a great game," Hand said. "We see each other as being in the way."

The games became more important last year when the Saints shook off almost a decade of losing to win the NFC West, Holt said.

"They've been division champs, we've been division champs. So we take this game very seriously," Holt said.

Rams defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said it was more testy than Holt described it, starting with pregame insults and continuing with game-time trash talk.

"It's time to shut these guys up," Ahanotu said. "This is like it's the only game they live for, for some reason and in all the rest of the games they lay eggs. It's time to shut these guys up."

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