EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. With an unprecedented nationwide disaster relief effort as a backdrop, the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints meet Monday night in a game that could provide a huge boost to the winner.
The Giants have not opened with two straight wins since 2000, the year they reached the Super Bowl, and haven't won consecutive games since last October. The Saints are coming off an emotional win at Carolina in their first game since being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Monday's game was to be the Saints' home opener on Sept. 18 before damage to the Louisiana Superdome three weeks ago caused the NFL to move it to Giants Stadium. The league is using the rare Monday night doubleheader Washington and Dallas play at 9 p.m. EDT, 90 minutes after the New York-New Orleans kickoff to broadcast a telethon to raise money for victims of the disaster.
While Saints players have used the devastation suffered by residents of the Gulf Coast as a rallying point, it is worth remembering that the team has won five straight games dating back to last season, second best in the league behind New England's six-game streak.
''I keep saying this, but before the hurricane got here, we were focused,'' wide receiver Joe Horn said from San Antonio, where the team has relocated for the season. ''The New Orleans Saints football team was focused to try and win a Super Bowl. By the hurricane coming and the homeless people that are here now watching us play, it gives us a little more initiative to play harder and play smarter and go out and win a Super Bowl.''
Both New Orleans coach Jim Haslett and New York coach Tom Coughlin expect improvement from their teams despite the opening-day wins. The Saints forced four turnovers against Carolina but needed a 47-yard field goal from John Carney with 3 seconds left for a 23-20 victory. The Giants had a punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns in a 42-19 win over Arizona that made up for a less than outstanding performance by quarterback Eli Manning (10-for-23 for 172 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions).
''Our passing game wasn't very good,'' Coughlin said bluntly last week. ''We've got to improve that area of our game.''
Parts of Giants Stadium will be decorated with the Saints' fleur-de-lis to make the visitors feel at home, and there will be a distinctly New Orleans flavor to the pregame and halftime entertainment. In addition, several hundred displaced New Orleanians will attend the game, as will New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass and other members of the New Orleans Police and Fire Departments.
None of that will change the fact the Saints are looking at spending the entire season away from home. They are one of the NFL's better road teams 5-3 away from home in 2004, versus 3-5 at the Superdome and already proved their mettle a week ago. Whether they can sustain that performance level amid the distractions will be a central question Monday night.
''I really think that every single player on our football team has done a good job under the situation,'' said Haslett. ''Nobody's complaining about what we're doing and what we're going through. They have understood that it's going to be different until we get into some type of normal routine, if we can ever get into a normal routine. So, it's been good. I think everybody has really stepped up.''
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