Saints take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 1, 2001

NEW ORLEANS – If the Saints’ plane crashes on the way to Saturday’s NFC Divisional playoff game at Minnesota, the NFC West champs could very well win the Super Bowl.

Virtually every position on the squad this year has been ravaged by injuries. But every time a starter goes out, it seems a relative unknown has stepped in and performed even better than his predecessor.

Saturday’s wild-card win over St. Louis was no exception. With the Saints’ receiving corps already thin – Keith Poole was inactive due to lingering concussion symptoms and Jake Reed was to see limited action because of a healing broken leg – leading receiver Joe Horn sprained his right ankle on the third play of game.

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&uot;To have our No. 1 receiver go down – I think a lot of people would have counted us out,&uot; said Saints receiver Willie Jackson, who was acquired from Cincinatti in the off-season as a free agent. &uot;But together as a team we decided we’d have to pick it up. We took everything in stride.&uot;

The Saints are getting used to it. Jackson’s six catches for 142 yards and three touchdowns – which tied an NFL playoff record – were nothing new to a team that has come to expect its reserves to perform at that level.

The upstart Saints were thought to be in trouble before they began when cornerback Steve Israel, tight end Cameron Cleeland and linebacker Charlie Clemons were all lost in preseason injuries.

One of Clemons’ replacements, Keith Mitchell, was named to the 2000 Pro Bowl.

When 1,000-yard running back Ricky Williams went down, his replacements, Chad Morton and Gerald Moore, averaged more yards per game than he did before they, too, were injured. Their replacement, Terry Allen, scored two touchdowns in his first game with the Saints.

And don’t forget the injury to quarterback Jeff Blake, the only player Saints coach Jim Haslett said he didn’t think the team could do without.

Enter second-year phenom Aaron Brooks, who passed for 266 yards and four touchdowns in his first post-season start Saturday – which was also, incidentally the first playoff win in franchise history.

&uot;Everything happens because of opportunities,&uot; Jackson said. &uot;You have to take advantage of those opportunities, because you don’t know when you’re going to get them.&uot;

Jackson took what the Rams gave him Saturday, and then took a little more, as over half of his yards were earned after the catch.

&uot;As far as I’m concerned, these are things that I expect of myself. It may have surprised a lot of other people, but I know that I’m capable of those types of things,&uot; Jackson said. &uot;As long as it comes within the team framework, I’m happy.

&uot;The whole team had to step up. It could have been Jake, Robert Wilson or myself,&uot; he added. &uot;The whole team had to pick it up, and we did. We picked it up.&uot;