ATLANTA (AP) – U2 and Green Day won’t be in the house. The commissioner has other plans. The coin toss will be handled by the referee, not an ex-president.

This time, it’s about the game – or, more specifically, two teams desperate for a win.

The Atlanta Falcons host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday without all the emotional baggage that accompanied their first meeting. In Week 3, the NFC South rivals faced each other at the reopening of the Superdome, a night of celebration in a city still trying to pick itself up from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

U2 teamed with Green Day for a rousing pregame concert. Former President George Bush flipped the coin at midfield. New commissioner Roger Goodell and his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, were both on hand at the renovated stadium, the symbol of so much misery just a year earlier.

Not surprisingly, the fired-up Saints jumped to a quick lead and routed the Falcons 23-3, an outcome that seemed inevitable before the teams even kicked off. Ever since, Atlanta had the rematch marked on its calendar.

“Now, it’s just getting back to football,” running back Warrick Dunn said.

The Falcons (5-5) sure could use a win. With three straight losses, they’ve gone from a team that looked like a serious NFC contender to one falling apart at the most crucial time of the season – just like a year ago. But Atlanta won’t get much sympathy from the Saints (6-4), who have lost three of four to fall into a first-place tie with Carolina.

“Everybody’s disappointed,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “At the same time, though, everything is in front of us. We’ve got the (third)-best record in the NFC, obviously tied with a bunch of other teams, but everything’s out there in front of us.”

Indeed, both teams are still right in the thick of crowded NFC playoff race. Chicago (9-1) has pulled away from everyone else, but the Saints are among five teams with four losses, while the Falcons are joined at .500 by two other teams. The Saints have a ready explanation for their struggles over the last month.

“The common thread has been the turnovers,” coach Sean Payton said. “We have to clean up the turnovers and get it corrected, because that’s one thing that will get you beat.”

Drew Brees had three interceptions in a loss to Baltimore, and three more against Cincinnati last week. Those two games account for six of his 10 picks on the season.

Then there’s the fumbles. The Saints have eight of them in their last three losses, and five were recovered by the other team.

“We’ve been pretty effective on offense moving the ball,” said Brees, who has thrown for more than 300 yards in four straight games, including a franchise-record 510 last week. “Unfortunately, we haven’t taken care of the ball like we need to, and that’s put the defense in some bad situations.”

The troubling issue for Atlanta during its losing streak has been a sputtering offense.

Michael Vick followed two of the best passing games of his career by completing just 44 of 93 (47 percent) for an average of 162 yards over the last three weeks. During that span, he has four interceptions, only three touchdowns and two crucial fumbles in which he lost the ball without being hit by the defense. Coach Jim Mora’s father, the longtime coach of the same name, turned up the heat on Vick by criticizing the quarterback on a national radio show. The elder Mora agreed when his co-host called Vick a “coach killer,” adding Vick would never be successful in the NFL because he’s not a consistent passer. Vick was stunned by the comments and refused to take the blame for Atlanta’s struggles.

“There’s a couple of throws I wish I could have back,” he said. “Other than that, there’s nothing I need to work on. When you get to Week 12, Week 13, there’s nothing you need to work on. You’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

In fairness to Vick, the league’s best rushing game has also struggled during the losing streak. Last week, the Falcons were held to a season-low 104 yards on the ground by the Ravens.

Also, the coverage teams were burned badly by Baltimore’s B.J. Sams, who had a pair of 59-yard returns that set up touchdowns. Atlanta must tighten up that part of its game against a team that has Reggie Bush returning punts and Michael Lewis bringing back kickoffs.

“They’ve got two guys back there who can really hurt you,” Atlanta’s Ike Reese said. “We’ve got to focus on the fundamentals, start making some tackles and get back to covering kicks like we did before.”

AP-ES-11-24-06 1659EST



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