NEW ORLEANS -- Call it NFL typecasting. On the eve of the holidays, the Los Angeles Raiders are poised to play the roll of The Grinch.
Their own future virtually decided, the Raiders have the playoff hopes of New Orleans, Philadelphia and San Francisco in their heavily taped hands tonight (9, Ch. 13) when they meet the Saints in the Superdome.
If the Raiders rise from the depression of last week's loss to Buffalo and smote the Saints, they'll keep all three NFC teams in the playoff hunt going into the season's final week. If they help the Saints snap their four-game losing streak, they'll knock the Eagles and the 49ers into 1992.
For their own purposes, the Raiders (9-5) have little at stake. Wins by Houston and Denver have eliminated any hope of a first-round bye and make an AFC West title remote. The Raiders would need two wins and a San Diego upset of Denver next week to defend their crown.
So don't expect the Raiders to use any of their injured -- defensive lineman Howie Long and special teams star Elvis Patterson, among others.
The Saints, once cruising along at 9-1, bring a four-game losing streak into the game and real concern that their playoff hopes are in jeopardy. Saints coach Jim Mora can't target any one reason for the slump ("There's been no pattern"). It's been an odd quilt:
* Injuries. The Saints' offense has lacked continuity since midseason because of ailments to quarter
back Bobby Hebert (shoulder) and running backs Craig Heyward (hamstring, foot) and Dalton Hilliard (foot). Hebert is expected to start tonight, replacing Steve Walsh.
On defense, the Saints have lost three cornerbacks in the past two weeks, and inside linebackers Vaughn Johnson and Sam Mills are playing with knee injuries. "I don't like to make excuses, but we're not the same team now that we were the first half of the season," Mora said.
* The Saints allowed just 21 fourth-quarter points in their first 10 games but have yielded 51 the last four weeks and blown a lead in each game.
* The Saints' defense, second only to Philadelphia's most of the season, has regressed. The Saints' 44 sacks is second best in the league, but they have just one the past two weeks. After combining for 21 1/2 the first 10 games, outside linebackers Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson have three the past four weeks.
* Be it Hebert's absence or the overall scheme, the offense has been erratic. Walsh has decent numbers (1,638 yards, 58 percent, 11 touchdowns) but lacks Hebert's leadership and arm strength to make a difference.
"Steve doesn't throw the deep sidelines or the out patterns as well as a lot of guys," Dallas defensive back Bill Bates said last week. "He has to keep most things underneath, where he can make the play consistently."
* Mora's conservatism. He disdained long field goals by one of the game's premier kickers, Morten Andersen, at strategic times twice the past month, decisions that came back to haunt him.