Saints, Falcons Meet in the Rubber Match

From Associated Press

If it's any encouragement for Atlanta Coach Jerry Glanville, the New Orleans Saints' offensive linemen agree that Jessie Tuggle is one of the finest inside linebackers in the NFL.

So, at the very least, the Falcons (10-6) have earned more than a little respect going into today's NFC wild-card game against the Saints (11-5) in the Superdome. The Saints are champions of the NFC West, and the Falcons are runners-up.

It's the third meeting this season between the Saints and Falcons. They split their regular-season games, each winning on the road.

Glanville has complained that Tuggle is always overlooked when ballots for all-star honors are being tabulated.

But the Saints voted for him as a Pro Bowl pick. Teams are forbidden to vote for their own players.

"He's a great linebacker," Saint center Joel Hilgenberg said. "He has great instincts for the ball. He closes to the ball really well. He gets by blockers. He does a good job of avoiding being picked off by anybody coming out to get him."

"He's a solid linebacker. He can run well. He's aggressive, and if you get him in the open field, he can make blockers miss," Saint guard Jim Dombrowski said.

"I think he's a better all-round linebacker than most of the guys in the league. What you ask a linebacker to do, Tuggle does it well."

Dombrowski knows good linebackers. The Saints' offensive line works daily against the best linebacking corps in the NFL--Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson outside, and Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson inside.

Glanville said Tuggle is unique in this era in which teams substitute on almost every change of down and distance.

"He does not come out of the game," Glanville said.

"We're all playing different combinations. But whatever combinations we get into, he remains in the game," he said.

"He's a straight-line tough guy. He can play in a phone booth, much like they could 15 years ago," he said. "But he can also play in space, which has changed pro football.

"He can go out and make a play one-on-one in the open field. In fact, the field was very, very wet in Dallas, and he missed a tackle. We all went into shock. He slipped on the turf in the open field. We all said, 'My gosh. He missed a tackle.' "

Glanville said he hoped his team has recovered from a disheartening loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, but nobody could tell for sure until they took the field today.

The Falcons and Saints went into the final weekend 10-5, and Atlanta had the tiebreaker edge for the NFC West championship.

Atlanta lost, 31-27, to the Cowboys after rallying from a 10-point deficit and driving the length of the field for what could have been the winning touchdown. A completion to Deion Sanders in the end zone was ruled invalid because Sanders had run out of bounds and re-entered the field for his catch.

"A little piece of you dies when something like that happens," Glanville said.

Both teams are hobbled by injuries.

The Saints list cornerbacks Mark Lee and Reggie Jones, offensive tackle Richard Cooper and defensive end Renaldo Turnbull as questionable. Atlanta running back Steve Broussard was put on injured reserve after the Cowboy game, and reserve cornerback Elbert Shelley was listed as questionable.

"Everybody's banged up this time of the year," Glanville said. "If you're not banged up, probably you're not in the playoffs because you haven't played hard enough."

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