Saints reach NFC title game
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Reggie Bush danced around defenders who fell over each other trying to tackle him. Drew Brees was back to passing with pinpoint accuracy, picking apart a beleaguered and depleted Arizona secondary.
A little rest was all the Saints needed to shift their league-leading offense back into overdrive.
That, and a visit from Arizona's porous defense.
Brees threw three touchdown passes, Bush scored on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run, and New Orleans overwhelmed the defending NFC champion Cardinals 45-14 in their divisional playoff game Saturday.
"So much for being rusty," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "That bye week was critical, getting guys healthy. ... I knew we were ready, the way we worked all week and we were confident in what we were going to do."
One win from their first Super Bowl, the Saints will host an NFC title game for the first time in franchise history next weekend when they play the winner of Sunday's matchup between Dallas and Minnesota.
"There's been a lot of firsts since Sean Payton has been here in the organization and we want to keep that going," Brees said. "We want to bring this franchise a championship."
Payton, Brees and Bush arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the same year the team returned to its hometown after spending a season as nomads because of Hurricane Katrina. The trio helped the Saints make a storybook run, capturing the franchise's second postseason win before losing at Chicago in its first NFC championship game.
"There's no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the Who-dat nation," Brees said. "Just the bond that we have with them is special. They give us strength. They give us motivation, and we want to do it for them."
Jeremy Shockey caught a touchdown pass in his return from a three-game absence. Devery Henderson and Marques Colston also had touchdown catches, and Lynell Hamilton had a short touchdown run for the Saints.
After its 51-45 overtime win over Green Bay in the wild-card round, Arizona wound up yielding 90 points in the postseason, the most ever allowed in consecutive playoff games in one season.
"It didn't end the way we wanted it to," said quarterback Kurt Warner, who was hoping to lead his team back to the Super Bowl, where it lost to Pittsburgh last year. "It wasn't nearly as competitive as we wanted it to be, but sometimes you have those days. Today was one of those days for us."
It didn't help that starting defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left knee sprain) and Antrel Rolle (concussion) went out in the first half.
"We played with a depleted secondary today," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "That hurt us. The Saints exploited those matchups. That was pretty obvious."
Even the Saints' sometimes soft defense played well, forcing two turnovers, harassing Warner often and knocking Arizona's 38-year-old quarterback out of the game briefly when, during Will Smith's interception return, he was blind-sided by Bobby McCray's block.
Warner was 17 of 26 for 205 yards, but was unable to move Arizona consistently. The Cardinals punted twice and missed a long field goal in the first half before heading into halftime down 35-14. Arizona punted twice more in the third quarter, with Bush scoring on the second to make it 45-14.
Bush finished with 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving and 109 yards on three punt returns. Colston caught six passes for 83 yards.
"I knew I was going to get a lot of opportunities today to make plays and just be a difference-maker for my team," Bush said. "I just tried to make the most of it every time I had the ball."
The victory wound up being so easy for New Orleans that Payton began pulling his regulars early in the fourth quarter.
It was more like what Saints fans had gotten used to earlier in the season, when New Orleans was blowing out opponents en route to a 13-0 start.
The Saints then finished the season on a three-game skid, averaging 14.7 points during that stretch. But New Orleans finished as the NFC's top seed anyway, and players said after their bye week that they'd return healthy and in top form.
"We had a plan the whole time," said Brees, who passed for 247 yards. "It was hard for anybody to understand that plan if you're not a member of my team, but we trusted in that plan, that process. We executed throughout the week and it showed in the game."
Looking to inspire the club, Payton on Friday signed fan favorite Deuce McAllister, who was inactive but led the team out onto the field before the game alongside Bush, who was wielding a black baseball bat with the inscription, "Bring the wood."
It didn't appear as though the Saints would be delivering a beating when the game started, though.
Arizona took the opening kickoff, and with the Superdome crowd howling madly to fire up the defense, Tim Hightower burst through a huge hole on the first play from scrimmage, cut back left and stunned the crowd into silence with a 70-yard TD run. It was the fourth rushing touchdown of 66 yards or more given up by New Orleans this season.
But the Saints had 59:41 left to make up for it. They needed one series to tie it, with Hamilton's 1-yard run capping a more methodical 10-play, 72-yard drive.
On Arizona's next possession, Warner hit Jerheme Urban cutting across the middle, but Randall Gay stripped him from behind and the ball bounced right to Darren Sharper, who returned it to the Cardinals 37. That led to Brees' 17-yard scoring strike to Shockey, who hopped as if the right foot injury that kept him out of the last three regular-season games was bothering him.
New Orleans was off to the races, scoring its third TD in 6:46 when Bush ran left, stopped, started again, danced away from two defenders who fell on each other missing him, then rocketed into the open field for his 46-yard TD.
"He's a guy who can change the game," Payton said.
A 4-yard touchdown run by Chris "Beanie" Wells made it 21-14, but the Saints went back up by two TDs when Brees hit Henderson on a flea flicker for a 44-yard score.
Colston's 2-yard touchdown catch made it 35-14 at halftime.
NOTES: Arizona was 1 of 8 on third down and had the ball for only 23:33. ... Aside from Hightower's touchdown on the first play, the Cardinals ran for only 31 yards. ... New Orleans hadn't won by more than three points since a 38-17 victory over New England on Nov. 30.