The New Orleans Saints offense kept the ball on the ground; their defense kept it out of Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s hands; and between the both of them, the team has kept the road to the Super Bowl going through Bourbon Street.
Head coach Sean Peyton won his second playoff game in four seasons and will bring his team to its second ever NFC Championship game, though this one in the far friendlier confines of the Louisiana Superdome.
There’s no questioning the significance of the first round playoff bye. The Saints’ struggles are largely because of the injury toll they racked up while pulling rabbits out of their helmets towards the end of their 13 game winning streak and during their 3 game losing streak. The two weeks off, courtesy of the meaningless Week 17 game and the bye, gave key players (tight end Jeremy Shockey, wide receiver Lance Moore, running back Pierre Thomas, etc.) badly needed time to heal.
The Saints squad that took the turf on Saturday afternoon was the most complete since the Miami Dolphins game way back in Week Seven. The Saints weren’t rusty; they were healthy and they played like the same team that handily defeated the Philadelphia Eagles and all three Empire State teams.
Though the Saints played excellent ball all around, from passing to punting to running, one player in particular truly stole the show.
What I Liked
No Keeping Up with Reggie Number 25 reminded everyone that his name is Bush, not bust. The resident celebri-thete shined on the post-season stage with an 83 yard punt return for a touchdown, a 46 yard run to the end zone and another 36 yards in his four other rushing attempts for an average of 16 yards (!) per carry. Bush proved that he is a play maker, a game changer and worth his 2nd overall pick. One could say that Bush played as if he was auditioning, but that’s for a post-season column.
First Rate Secondary The Saints fielded their first-string secondary for the first time since mid-season and their presence was felt by Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and his talented receiver squad. Warner passed for just over 200 yards and had no touchdowns. Officially, Warner was picked off only once by Saints defensive end Will Smith though free safety Darren Sharper snatched a pass that was later throw out because of a roughing the passer penalty. Cornerback Randall Gay came up big stripping the ball from wide receiver Jerheme Urban. Sharper recovered the ball and the offense converted the turnover into six points on a Brees to Shockey 17 yard touchdown pass.
Prior to the strip, the Warner to Urban pass was for 28 yards, his longest “completion” of the game. It was that kind of day for Warner.
Drew Dat! Saints quarterback Drew Brees had his standard outstanding performance, throwing three touchdowns, completing 23 of 32 passes (72%) for 247 yards and no interceptions. To say Brees was dearly missed in the Carolina throw-away game two weeks ago would be a gross understatement; that the Saints would not be in the playoffs without him is undeniable.
What Me Hurt? While I didn’t hold my breath every time he carried the ball, I’ll admit that I made a point of straining my eyes looking for blood on the field whenever running back Pierre Thomas got tackled. After suffering broken ribs against Tampa Bay three weeks ago, number 23 showed his durability running for 52 yards on 13 carries.
Props for the Junior Member of the Running Committee Big running back Lynell Hamilton was properly utilized getting into the end zone on a one yard run. Though he’s the fourth running back, Hamilton has the size and the power to pound the ball through on short yardage plays against a stacked defensive line.
And last but not least…
Perhaps one of the best ways the front office could light a fire under the fans after four weeks removed from the team’s last win, the signing of Saints running back Deuce McAllister, the most popular player to ever don a helmet with a fleur-de-lis, created instant enthusiasm and celebration.
Though more than a few people were disappointed as it became clear that Deuce’s role on the roster would be ceremonial and not as a truly active player, the beloved running back got the Black and Gold excited and noisy, much to the consternation of the Arizona offense. As the Saints organization has pulled their fair share of boners, including cutting popular fullback Mike Karney on the eve of his wedding, placing McAllister on the active roster and on the sidelines shows an increasing sensitivity to some of the most loyal fans in the league.
ZERO That being the number of sacks the Saints’ offensive line gave up to an Arizona defense that ranked 6th in the regular season.
What I Didn’t Like
The Obligatory Big Yard Rushing Score A 2009 New Orleans Saints tradition I could really do without. The Saints defense gave up a 70 yard touchdown run by running back Tim Hightower on the Cardinals’ first offensive play of the game. The early big run is so common that many Saints fans were nonplussed by a similar play that marked the beginning of the end of the New England Patriots’ post-season.
Disrespect for Kurt Warner Had I been wearing a hat on Saturday evening, I would have removed it out of respect when Warner left the field.
The Arizona Cardinals quarterback should be in the Hall of Fame for a number of reasons: his rise from bagging groceries to Super Bowl MVP, his perseverance as a star player and his universally recognized class and character working with developmentally challenged people and the Special Olympics.
That said, when Warner took a stiff hit from Saints defensive end Bobby McCray after an interception and temporarily left the game in the first half, some Saints fans decided to taunt the legendary passer as he ambled to the locker room.
Cognizant that this could have been Warner’s final football game, I reprimanded a Saints fan wearing mock religious attire (I reckon his “Breesus” shirt was in the wash) that was hurling insults at number 13.