New Orleans – In a game that started in stunning fashion with Cardinals running back Tim Hightower racing 70 yards for a score, it ended in even more stunning fashion as the Saints throttled the visiting Arizona Cardinals, 45-14.
"So much for being rusty," Payton succinctly said to start his post game press conference. "Obviously, I'm pleased with the way they played. I thought in all three phases that we did a good job. That's a good team we played today. I have a lot of respect for what they've been able to accomplish this season and last year. I'm just really proud of our team. I'm excited for our city. We've got a home game again.
The win propels the Saints into the NFC Championship game next Sunday against either the Minnesota Vikings or the Dallas Cowboys. But the focus remained, at least immediately following the game, about the Saints dominance in the win. "I did feel we were ready," Payton said. "The week off helped our team from where we were at the end of the season. We had a handful of guys that we were able to get ready. I thought we were tired at the end of the regular season. I thought the down time and the padded practices we had against each other were very important."
The Saints, sans the first play of the game from scrimmage, were sharp in every facet of the game. The Saints rolled up 418 yards in time of possession offensively with 247 coming through the air and 171 yards on the ground, the Saints' limited the Cardinals to a mere one-of-eight (13%) on third downs, and the special teams units were highlighted by Reggie Bush's 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Bush was spectacular all afternoon long, with five carries for 84 yards, including a franchise-record 46-yard rushing score; four receptions for 24 yards, and a three punt returns for 109 yards for a combined 217 yards and two touchdowns. "We've talked about this a while now," Payton said. "He's as healthy as he's been. He was something today. You saw it now only on the punt return, but on the long touchdown run. He played real well today."
"That was vintage Reggie Bush that you saw out there today," said S Darren Sharper. "He has the ability to make those big plays and he showed it today. It was something else to watch."
QB Drew Brees was masterful, as well, with 23 completions on 32 attempts for 247 yards and three touchdowns. Brees found Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Jeremy Shockey on touchdown passes as the Saints staked themselves a 35-14 halftime lead and never looked back, shutting the Cardinals out in the second half.
Arizona running back Tim Hightower took the first opening kickoff 70 yards for a touchdown, making one cut and darting untouched into the Saints' end zone only 19 seconds into the contest. Neil Rackers' extra point made the score 7-0 with 14:41 left in the first quarter. "We were in a seven-man front. They did a good job of blocking a look," Payton said.
The Saints began their first possession at their own 28 and began with a one-yard carry by running back Pierre Thomas. Drew Brees welcomed wide receiver Lance Moore back into the lineup with a seven-yard completion on second down, which brought up a third-and-two, which Brees converted with a six-yard pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey, who exchanged woods with his former collegiate teammate, safety Antrel Roll, after the play.
On the ensuing play LB Chike Okeafor jumped offsides and gave the Saints five yards. Running back Reggie Bush then took a toss off the right side and picked up seven yards and a first down to the Arizona 46. A screen plat intended for Thomas was batted down by the Cardinals on first down, but Brees came right back and found wide receiver Marques Colston for a gain of 17 yards to the 29. Bush then started to his right and after finding little running room, cut back to his left, found a hole and slammed ahead for a gain of 11-yards and a first down. Brees and Shockey then connected for a gain of 13 yards to the Arizona five, and Thomas picked up four hard-earned yards with an off-tackle run. First-year running back Lynell Hamilton finished the Saints' drive off with a one-yard touchdown run off the right side of the Saints' offensive line. Garrett Hartley's extra point concluded the 10-play, 72-yard drive that took 5:24 off of the clock and knotted the game at 7-7 with 9:17 left in the first quarter.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner's first completion of the game came on a crossing route to wide Jerheme Urban for gain of 28 yards, but Saints cornerback Randall Gay stripped him of the football, with safety Darren Sharper swooping in and snatching the loose ball and returning it 13 yards to the Cardinals' 37. A slew of personal fouls were called on Cardinals offensive linemen Deuce Lutui and Jeremy Bridges and Saints defensive end Will Smith.
Thomas started the drive with an eight-yard run, but was stopped for no gain on a second-and-two. Brees converted the third down with a pass into the flat to Colston for 12 yards. On the next play Brees bought time and came back to his left and found Shockey slanting into the end zone and the two connected for a 17-yard touchdown pass that gave the Saints a 14-7 lead with 7:02 left in the opening frame.
Arizona, beginning at their own 31, nearly turned it over again when Warner mishandled a handoff and the loose ball bounced backwards three yards. Warner recovered the ball an instant before Scott Fujita could recover it. Warner's second down pass intended for Larry Fitzgerald was off the mark and in the throws of a deafening Superdome roar, Warner called the Cardinals' first timeout of the first half with 6:13 left in the quarter. Facing a third-and-13 from the Cardinals' 28 Warner was forced to check down to WR Early Doucet for a gain of seven yards before being swarmed under by a host of Saints defenders. P Ben Graham, a Saint for a brief period of time in 2008, hit a 42-yard punt that was fair caught along the sideline at Saints' 23.
Thomas sliced through the middle of the line for a gain of nine yards on first down and converted the first down with a lowered shoulder run off the right side for a gain of four yards to 36. Brees then took a deep drop and looked at two receivers streaking down the field, but elected to check it down to Thomas for a gain of two yards. Brees then hit Devery Henderson on a screen pass, with Henderson breaking a tackle and picking up eight yards through a host of Cardinals defenders. On the play CB Dominique Rodgers-Crommartie was injured and needed assistance in leaving the field, appearing to favor his left ankle. CB Greg Toler replaced him in the lineup. On the next play Bush darted to his left, cutback to his right, then once again cutback to the left and raced 46-yards for a touchdown that put the Saints ahead 21-7 with 2:31 still left in the first quarter. The run was the longest run in Saints' postseason history.
DT Sedrick dropped Warner for an eight-yard loss on a sack on first down, and RB Beanie Wells picked up one-yard on second down. Warner scrambled on third down and dumped a pass off to Hightower, who picked up 13 yards but was still four yards shy of the first down. Graham hit a 51 yard punt that was fielded and returned by Bush for 15 yards to the Saints' 31. Brees threw the ball away after seeing a different look on first down and came back to hit Thomas on a screen on second down for a gain of three yards before being stopped by Okeafor on the final play of the first quarter. Brees tried to connect with Moore on a deep in on third down, but Toler defended the pass. P Thomas Morstead then hammered a 66-yard punt that bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
Starting at their own 20 LeRod Stephens-Howling took a handoff for a two-yard gain, and Warner came back and hit Steve Breaston for a gain of 17 yards and a first down. Hightower was stopped by Scott Fujita on a first down run after a gain of two yards. DE Will Smith was flagged for a personal foul call when he hit Warner, which negated a Darren Sharper interception and moved ball from the Arizona 42 to the Saints 44. Warner then found tight end Anthony Becht for a gain of eight yards and then found Hightower over the middle of the field for a nine-yard gain. Warner and Breaston connected for an eight-yard gain. A third down pass from Warner to Doucet picked up 15 yards to the Saints' four, and Wells converted the drive with a four-yard touchdown run that pulled the Cardinals to within seven points, 21-14 with 9:40 left in the second quarter.
New Orleans, beginning at their own 17 with 9:35 left in the first half, started the drive with a five-yard gain by running back Mike Bell. Brees then tried to test Toler on a streak to Robert Meachem, but the two couldn't connect deep downfield. Bush then surprised the Cardinals on a third-down draw that picked up six yards and gave the Saints another first down. Thomas then took a pitch off the right side of the line and picked up two yards. Brees then found Colston on a seam route down the middle of the field for a long gain of 26 yards before being stopped by Mike Adams at the Cardinals 44. On the next play Thomas took a handoff and flipped it back to Brees who fired a pass to Henderson for a touchdown, on the reception Henderson had to turnaround and readjust to the pass, but made the reception despite the presence of CB Bryant McFadden. Following Hartley's extra point the Saints led 28-14 with 6:48 left in the second quarter.
Arizona, at their 28, tried a Hightower run, although Jonathan Vilma stopped him in the hole after a four-yard gain. Warner then dropped back and tried to dump a pass off over the middle, although a leaping Kurt Warner tipped and intercepted the pass and returned it five yards to the Arizona 27. On the play Warner was blocked by defensive end Bobby McCray and needed assistance in leaving the field.
A first down pass from Brees to Colston was nearly completed, but Colston was ruled of bounds. Brees then found Bush for a gain of seven yards and the two converted a third down pass with beautiful diving reception from Bush. Thomas then tried the left side of the line for a gain of five yards, and then Meachem took an end around for a gain of four yards. Thomas picked up the first down with a two-yard gain and the Cardinals' Darnell Dockett was flagged for a personal foul penalty when he hit Shockey late. The Saints gave five yards back, though, when right tackle Jon Stinchcomb was hit with a false start call. Mike Bell then found a hole and dashed into the end zone, but left guard Carl Nicks was flagged for a holding call that moved the to the Arizona 17. Brees, though, found Colston for a gain of 15 yards to the two, and on the next play went right back to the big receiver and fired a two-yard touchdown pass into his mitts, giving the Saints a 35-14 lead with 1:10 remaining in the half.
Matt Leinhart came into replace Warner (chest injury) and completed his first two passes, a pair of six-yard efforts to Doucet. The Cardinals called their second-timeout with :32 left. Fitzgerald made a leaping 16-yard reception at their own 48 and Leinhart spiked the ball to stop the clock with :14 left. A second down pass to Fitzgerald picked up 13 yards to the 39 with :08 left. The Cardinals attempted a 50-yard field goal by Rackers, but the kick fell short and the two teams headed to the locker room for halftime with the Saints having broken their team-record for most points in a playoff game (31 vs. St. Louis, 12/30/2000).
The Saints began the second half of play by taking possession of the football at their own 40 after Rackers kick bounced out of bounds. Brees and Henderson teamed up for a 15-yard reception on first down and Thomas managed two yards on first down. Brees found Bush for a gain of four yards on second down and a third down pass was incomplete. Morstead hit a 26-yard punt that bounced inside the ten but hopped back to the 12 before it was downed by Jonathan Casillas.
Warner re-entered the game to begin the second half and promptly started with a 12-yard completion to Doucet. Stephens-Howling picked up two yards on a first down carry and Hightower came in and picked up three yards. On third-and-five the Saints' pass rush flushed Warner to his right and caused an incomplete pass to be thrown, with Graham hitting a 42-yard punt that was returned 11 yards by Bush to the Saints' 36.
Bush started the Saints' drive of the half with a 14-yard dash up the middle. Brees then hooked up with Colston for an 11-yard gain, and DE Calais Campbell was flagged for a personal foul call after hitting Brees late. With the football at the 24 Brees tried a deep pass into the end zone for Colston but overthrew the big receiver as he was in double-coverage. Brees then completed a quick screen to Moore, but a nice play by Adrian Wilson nullified any gain. Brees nearly hit Henderson in the end zone, but the speedy receiver was unable to hang onto the ball in tight coverage. Hartley clobbered a 43-yard field goal attempt right down the middle, boosting the score to 38-14 with 8:26 left in the game.
Arizona, after a Morstead touchback, started at their own 20 and were victimized by a dropped pass on the first play. Warner then completed a 14-yard pass to Fitzgerald over the middle of the field. First and second down passes defensed turned in by Tracy Porter and Darren Sharper forced incompletions, and a third down completion to Fitzgerald was stopped shy of the first down sticks. Graham then hit a 49-yard punt that was fielded by Bush and returned 83-yards for a score, his second touchdown of the afternoon, which brought a chorus of "Reggie-Reggie-Reggie" from the raucous crowd. It was the third longest punt return in NFL postseason history.
Warner, facing a 31-point deficit, hit Hightower on a short completion then Fitzgerald for 16. Doucet hauled in an eight-yard effort on first down and Warner was able to hang in the pocket long enough to find Fitzgerald for another 14-yard gain. Breaston then reeled in a 20-yard pass to the Saints' 17. Breaston and Warner connected again, this time for a gain of seven yards to the 10. Smith then nearly sacked Warner, but instead forced him to throw the football away on second down. Hightower then fumbled a pitch and lost a yard and the Cardinals went for it on fourth down, but Warner's pass intended for Breaston fell incomplete and the Saints took over possession of the ball at the 10.
Bell opened the drive with a gain of three yards to the 13 before being stopped by DT Gabe Watson. Brees found Thomas for a gain of seven yards and a first down. Thomas bulled his forward for a gain of five yards. Brees found a sliding Henderson for a five-yard gain and a first down on the final play of the third quarter. Hamilton came in and picked up three yards on first down, with Brees having his second down pass batted down by defensive tackle Bryan Robinson. Brees converted the third down with a short pass that Bush turned into a first down with an eight-yard reception. Thomas then managed three yards, and then six yards on carries, with Hamilton picking up five yards and a first down. Hamilton then smashed his way for a gain of 11 yards and a first down, followed up by consecutive carries by Bell to the Arizona 34. On a third-and-seven from the 31 Brees hit Thomas for a gain of six yards to the 25, inches shy of a first down. The Saints tried an end-around with TE David Thomas, but he was stopped shy of the sticks on an alert play by Toler and the Cardinals took over with 8:22 left in game.
Leinhart returned to the game but wasn't able to guide the Cardinals to a first down and Graham hit a 42-yard punt that Bush fair caught at the Saints' 27 with 7:31 left in the game.
Bells was stopped a yard-shy of the line of scrimmage by Karlos Dansby on first down and was again stopped on second down by Dansby and LB Clark Haggans. Hamilton managed three-yards on third down but the Saints called on Morstead who hammered a 50 yard effort that was fair caught at the Cardinals' 20.
Wells picked up three yards on first down and Leinhart connected with Doucet for a gain of seven yards and a first down. Wells again carried and picked up two yards, followed by another seven-yard completion to Doucet. Wells tried to pick up the first down but was stopped by DT Anthony Hargrove for a loss of three-yards and the Cardinals punted away with the Saints taking possession at their own 29 with just over two minutes to play.
The Saints took a knee to end the game and head into the NFC Championship game next Sunday in the Superdome, with kickoff scheduled for 5:40 p.m.