NEW ORLEANS - If there were ever a game for Joe Horn to get his mojo back, this would be it.
"I miss New Orleans. I miss the fans. I miss the people that were real there with Joe Horn," said the outspoken receiver with the predilection for referring to himself in the third person. "I love New Orleans. I get chills when I think about coming to New Orleans."
This is a town, after all, renowned for its mysticism and belief in curses. And Horn did not exactly leave the Saints on friendly terms.
This week, Payton downplayed any animosity, speaking only of his admiration for the receiver who had 679 yards receiving and four touchdowns in 10 games for the Saints last season. Because of a nagging groin injury, Horn missed six regular-season games and both Saints playoff games, although Horn contended he was healthy enough to play in the NFC championship game against Chicago.
"He's someone that's been a great competitor, has had a great career and has worked his tail off," Payton said. "Through determination and hard work, he's someone that persevered and made himself a special player in our league. I was fortunate ... to have been able to coach him for a year and have the success we had with him. Now it becomes about two teams playing in a game that is important for both teams because both teams are sitting here at this time of the year with just one win. Both teams are trying to get something going and not dig themselves into too deep a hole."
"I know you guys think I'm probably trying to play it down," Horn said. "I'm going to try to do my best and do my job as far as playing for the Atlanta Falcons because that's my new team now, but I'm not coming back for hurrah or trying to embarrass somebody or make somebody feel bad. That's not where I'm at right now. We're 1-5 right now."
Horn, 35, has struggled a bit himself. Lining up as the Falcons' third wide receiver, he has 11 catches for 117 yards and no touchdowns. Atlanta has yet to profit from the type of game-breaking performance Horn provided New Orleans on numerous occasions.
"We're trying to get him more and more opportunities. Anytime we give him an opportunity, he makes a play," Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino said. "We'd certainly love to have him go down there and have a big game."
Perhaps a change in quarterbacks could help. After sticking with Joey Harrington for weeks, Petrino announced Wednesday that Byron Leftwich would take over. Leftwich was cut by Jacksonville shortly before the season and signed with Atlanta in Week 2.
Petrino only hopes he's not throwing Leftwich into a tough situation before he's ready.
"We've had Byron in here for a month," Petrino said. "He's still learning the offense."
The Saints, by contrast, aren't at all concerned about their quarterback. After throwing only one touchdown pass and nine interceptions in the Saints' opening four losses, Brees began to look more like the NFL passing leader he was in 2006 during last Sunday night's 28-17 victory at Seattle. Brees completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in that game, with two touchdown tosses and no interceptions.
Payton has contended all season long that Brees was not playing as poorly as his statistics indicated. The coach said a lack of protection by the line and dropped passes had a lot to do with it early on.
But the line hasn't allowed a sack in two games now, and by getting receivers David Patten and Lance Moore more involved last week, New Orleans moved the ball consistently and scored three offensive touchdowns in a game for the first time this season.
"A lot of times in professional athletics, it's about streaks," Brees said, using baseball's Colorado Rockies, who've won 21 of 22 games, as an example. "Look at the streak the Rockies are on right now. They almost missed the playoffs. ... We've had our bad streak, now we want the good one where the wins start piling up."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.