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Saints fueled by loss; Texans focused; Aaron Donald's drive

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As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 14, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- How Bill O'Brien is keeping Houston focused.

-- Eric Berry's comeback.

-- Learning from Aaron Donald.

But first, Herbie Teope catches up with a Saints team determined to shake off an unexpected defeat ...

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints had extra days to absorb a 13-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 13.

Players were off through the weekend before returning to work in preparation for a rematch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who defeated New Orleans in Week 1. But don't look for revenge to play a role in the Saints' mindset heading into Sunday.

Instead, they'll be hoping to rinse away the bitter taste left in their mouths by the loss to the Cowboys with a refocused effort in Week 14.

"To me, that game pretty much put fire under me to make sure we win this game," cornerback P.J. Williams told NFL.com on Wednesday. "If anything, that will be a big reason why we play great this week.

"I feel like we lost last week, definitely trying to get back on track. We know we're a lot better team than that, so I feel like I want to kill the Bucs because we lost last week. That's how I feel about it."

Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins echoed his teammate.

"There's no revenge or anything like that," Rankins told NFL.com. "At the end of the day, we're just trying to get to win No. 11, and whoever is in the way is in the way. Whatever we need to do to get this win, we're going to do."

Nevertheless, Weeks 1 and 13 did carry a common theme: the stunning way the Saints went down.

In the season opener, the Buccaneers overwhelmed New Orleans with a dynamic aerial attack, led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's 417 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 48-40 shootout. The early-season loss served as a wake-up call, and the Saints responded with 10 consecutive wins before suffering a defeat to the Cowboys in a game that proved to be the opposite of Week 1's offensive fireworks show. Dallas utilized a smothering defense to limit the Saints' offense to 176 yards, their lowest total since Week 17 of the 2001 season. The Cowboys also held the Saints scoreless in the first half, marking the first time in 71 consecutive games that New Orleans failed to produce points before halftime.

"Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war," quarterback Drew Brees told reporters. "You learn a lot from something like that. I don't think we were getting ahead of ourselves or anything like that. I just think, honestly, we just had a bad day, and so you turn on the film -- and it's glaringly obvious where we failed -- and make sure that doesn't happen again."

Rankins agreed.

"We got to move past it, because that's the way this league works," he said. "Tampa is on the schedule this week, and obviously it sucks to lose. We were rolling pretty well with a 10-game winning streak, but we obviously didn't execute well enough overall to get the win."

Meanwhile, Week 13's loss produced deeper implications in the NFC, as the Saints (10-2) dropped out of the top seed in the conference. They currently sit one game behind the Los Angeles Rams (11-1).

But the Saints remain in good position. With a win on Sunday, they can clinch the NFC South, which would give them consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history. And should the Saints and Rams finish the season with identical records, New Orleans will own the tie-breaker, thanks to its Week 9 win over Los Angeles.

Still, the Saints can't look past the Bucs, despite Tampa's 5-7 record. The Buccaneers are on a two-game winning streak with Jameis Winston under center, and they are 3-2 against New Orleans since 2016, including two straight wins.

The Saints, however, are a different team since their Week 1 meeting. The explosive offense, which has six games of 40 points or more in 2018, is now backed by an efficient defense. New Orleans has allowed 51 total points over the past four games, or 12.7 points per game, and produced 20 sacks and six interceptions in that span.

"We're playing at a high level, a level that you need a team to play at on both sides of the ball, especially on the defensive-back level, where we're creating a lot of turnovers, communicating," safety Kurt Coleman told NFL.com. "We're not giving up big plays, and that's a recipe for successful football."

In the meantime, the Saints' mission this week is pretty clear -- and a desire to avenge an early-season loss isn't on the menu.

"We have all that attainable right in front of us," Coleman said, referring to the potential for clinching the division and staying in the chase for home-field advantage in the playoffs. "We have to take care of our job. It just so happens that Tampa Bay is the team we get to play."

Williams agreed emphatically.

"We win this, we win the division," Williams said. "That's the No. 1 goal -- win the division. We want to have the hats and shirts after the game."

NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

HOUSTON TEXANS: Keeping their eyes on the prize. Texans head coach Bill O'Brien has gone to great lengths to make sure his team has stayed focused during its nine-game win streak. And he's not letting up now, even with the AFC South title within sight.

If the Jaguars had beaten the Titans on "Thursday Night Football," Houston would have been able to seal up the division by beating the Colts on Sunday. Alas, Tennessee's win means Houston's moment of triumph will have to wait. Still, when I spoke with O'Brien on Monday about the potential for clinching this week back when it remained a possibility, he had this to say:

"I think about today. We just had a staff meeting. We're going to meet at 12:30 with the players. They're lifting right now. Let's have a great Monday. That's what I think about."

O'Brien has made it abundantly clear the Texans are taking it one game at a time and will not allow this team to get ahead of itself. If you ask around enough, it's almost to the point of absurdity.

"It has to be that way," O'Brien said, of his approach. "This league is the most humbling professional sports league there is. If you start to take the cheese, you start to drink the Kool-Aid, you're going to get humbled. That is something that we talk about to our players. What I've learned in this league, it's never as good as you think it is and it's never as bad. Our players need to just show up, get their lift in today, get rehab, get going and be ready to go to work tomorrow."

It appears to be trickling down to his players. After last week's win over Cleveland, several players refused to admit they're on one of the best teams in the NFL. They wouldn't say anything beyond the fact they'd beaten the Browns.

Case in point: Multiple players I talked to on Thursday had no clue there was a division-clinching scenario potentially in play Sunday -- it wasn't even on their radar. Two players didn't even know who was playing on Thursday night, though both combatants are in the AFC South.

When I explained it to linebackers Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney, Mercilus answered for the two of them, with McKinney just nodding along. "Don't matter, then," Mercilus said sitting at his locker and scrolling through his phone. "We just have to win Sunday. That's our plan, anyway."

-- James Palmer

Hopkins: 'I don't get that many calls.' Earlier this year against the Dolphins, on what could be called the best catch of the season in the NFL, Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins was called for offensive pass interference. It was questionable -- at best. Hopkins is arguably the best receiver in football, but if you ask him, he's doing it despite the reputation he believes he has among NFL officials.

"I don't get that many calls," Hopkins said Thursday. "I've been in the league for a while. I guess refs kind of let guys get away with a little bit, but I'm a bigger receiver, so it's a challenge to me to play through that and still catch it."

Hopkins told me after the Texans beat the Jaguars in Week 7 that no one in the league can cover him one-on-one. He's probably right. There also hasn't been a team, to his knowledge, that hasn't double-teamed him every down in the red zone this season. When I asked him what he can do when that happens, he said, "Trust my other teammates one-on-one to make a play." Houston feels it has acquired a red-zone target who can play well opposite Hopkins in Demaryius Thomas.

-- James Palmer

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Managing Berry's comeback. The Kansas City Chiefs have reached a key turning point in the saga revolving around safety Eric Berry. They've spent the last four months trying to figure out when he'd be healthy enough to start playing football, especially since a mysterious heel injury has sidelined him since training camp. Now -- after Berry resumed practicing last week -- the team is trying to determine when he'll play in a game and for how long.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton acknowledged that, if Berry is able to take the field against the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday, Berry might have to be limited to a certain number of plays. Along with not playing so far this season, Berry missed most of the 2017 campaign after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in a season-opening win over New England.

"Honestly, I would think (there would be limits on Berry's playing time), but we haven't even got that far," Sutton said. "We will have to see where he is at. Most of the time, when those guys come back, we trust them a lot, and then we kind of keep a close [eye], because sometimes they think they can keep going. I'm sure when he gets out there, he will feel that way. But, yeah, we try to be smart with him."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

* * * * *

LOS ANGELES RAMS: No better study partner than Aaron Donald. Remember when you were in grade school and it was viewed as wrong and taboo to cheat off your peers' tests or notes to the right or left? Forget all that if you play alongside Rams' rusher Aaron Donald -- "cheating" on the Rams' defense, as you'll learn, is allowed.

Donald -- or "A.D.," as teammates call him -- led the NFL heading into Week 14 with 16.5 sacks. It's no surprise that he also leads the league in quarterback hits and hurries and tackles for loss. In forced fumbles, though, he's in a mere fourth-place tie. (No problem, Aaron -- we'll let that one slide.)

As the MVP conversation continues to heat up and the idea of a defensive player getting the nod is debated among the general public, Donald's teammates would be best suited to explain what makes Donald so good. Defensive end Michael Brockers told me this week that the thing that makes Donald so special is "his detail to the game."

"I tell people all the time, I try to cheat off his notes sometimes, when it comes to writing notes on offensive linemen," Brockers said. "But, it's just everywhere. Different plays he can make on his own. Different things he can do within the calls and the defense. He breaks it down to a T."

For Donald, the devil truly is in the detail.

"When people talk about how great of a player he is, the first thing I talk about," Brockers explained, "is how detailed he is, and what rushes he wants to use in different situations -- and understanding if it's third-down, if it's under two minutes (for example) -- the guy's a true professional."

The Bears are expected to get Mitch Trubisky back on the field for Chicago's showdown with the Rams after a two-game absence by the quarterback caused by an injury to his throwing shoulder. Protection will be paramount for the Bears -- and you can most certainly be sure that knowing the whereabouts of No. 99 at all times will be the first priority.

Said Bears coach Matt Nagy of Donald this week: "You put three circles around him; he's a game-changer, times three -- he's got the power, the speed, the athleticism -- he can do it all."

-- Stacey Dales

McVay shakes off sore throat ahead of Chicago clash. You can always count on Rams head coach Sean McVay to avoid typical "coachspeak." During Wednesday's press conference, he took his analysis of the Bears' defense to an entirely new level. When asked about the challenges they'll face against the stingy Chicago D, McVay responded with a minute-long scouting report on each of the 11 defensive starters. McVay's football IQ and photographic memory once again left everyone in the media room in awe.

The Rams coach was sick earlier in the week; he canceled his usual Monday press conference, opting instead to speak with reporters via conference call and work from home. He was back for Wednesday's availability and said he felt "outstanding" despite a notable sore throat. "Don't let the voice fool you," McVay said. "I feel great!"

Rams quarterback Jared Goff pointed out that they avoided facing 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack in Week 1, when the Rams played against the Raiders, because Oakland had traded Mack to Chicago before the season, but he knew they would go up against the impressive edge rusher at some point. That time is coming Sunday.

Goff praised his offensive line, specifically left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Rob Havenstein, calling them a quarterback's best friend. Goff said, "When Rob is to my right, I can see everything in front of me and move around, and 'Whit,' just trusting him on my back side when I can't see it. All that is a really huge advantage."

-- MJ Acosta

* * * * *

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Amendola's revenge? Rarely during Bill Belichick's tenure in New England will a player who's been allowed to leave come back to haunt him -- the Patriots coach usually gets those decisions right. Dolphins wide receiver Danny Amendola would love to be the exception to that rule.

The former Patriot -- nicknamed Danny "Playoff" Amendola by Rob Gronkowski -- will get his second crack at New England in a Dolphins uniform, assuming a troublesome knee allows him to take the field.

"This is the first time that I would say that he's not being very compliant with me," said Miami coach Adam Gase, who is trying to restrict some of Amendola's practice workload. "He wants to play in this game as bad as anyone."

Amendola, who signed in Miami last offseason after five seasons in New England, missed the Dolphins' win over the Bills last Sunday, but the arrow seems to be pointing in the right direction for this weekend.

"I'm trying to give him a little bit of the ability to show that he can (play), but at the same time trying to make sure we get through the week the right way and make sure we don't lose him for any longer than we already have," said Gase.

Another former teammate, safety Patrick Chung, fully expects to see Amendola on the gridiron Sunday.

"Danny's the man," Chung said. "I mean, that's because he's my friend, but he's a small dude, but he's stronger than you think, and he's feisty. He's going to be ready for us. He's a tough dude, plays through injuries, smart. Whatever the injury report says, we're getting ready for Danny, because he's good. He'll be there. He's a tough guy."

Amendola currently leads the Fins in receptions with 48 and has impressed his new coach with his approach.

"The way [Amendola] practices, the way he prepares for a game, whether it be meetings, how he is in the locker room, just how he operates, day in and day out," Gase said. "And when we get to game day, just the intensity he brings. It seems like he always makes the play when it's a tight game. If we need somebody to step up and do something, he always seems to be that guy. I think the guys respect him around here."

Amendola would like to make a greater impact then he did the first times these two teams met, in a 38-7 Patriots win. He caught just two passes for 21 yards.

-- Mike Giardi

* * * * *

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: A franchise first at hand. For all their success in the Sean Payton era, the Saints have not won consecutive division titles since the franchise began play in 1967 -- a streak they can end by clinching the NFC South crown Sunday, either with a win at Tampa Bay or a Panthers loss in Cleveland.

"Oh, for real?" cornerback Marshon Lattimore said when I told him. "Shoot, we turnt up then."

Saints coach Sean Payton said he gave players "a brief education" on the playoff system this week, "and they're all smart enough to know that, hey, you're chasing other things that can enhance your possible opportunities down the road. And so it's that simple. And so the focus is really getting to 11 (wins) this week, and how do we do that?"

The Buccaneers are 5-7 but have won two in a row. And they've given the Saints trouble, winning three of five matchups since Dirk Koetter became head coach, including the 48-40 shootout in Week 1 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

-- Tom Pelissero

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