December 31, 2006

Finale Academic as Delhomme Beats Backups

McAfee, Branch, Cooper see time as Payton rests most starters; Saints lose 31-21

It was a game with only academic meaning for both teams, but a big opportunity for some Saints reserves.

The Saints had locked in their playoff seed a week earlier. The Panthers were eliminated a day earlier. So when the Saints, now 10-6, met the Panthers, now 8-8, in the Superdome on Sunday, the only thing left to play for was to avoid injury and allow the some backups rare time in the spotlight. The Saints would allow their backups the luxury, the Panthers did not, and so Carolina rolled out of New Orleans with a 31-21 victory, a season sweep of the Saints, and a host of disappointment for their failed season.

Drew Brees attempted only five passes on the day, completing four for 46 yards, all on the Saints' opening two drives. Bush, who covered his fumbled exchange for a first down gain, then caught passes of six and seven yards and sprinted right for 12 yards on the drive. He capped it off with a plunge from short yardage after former training camp body, preseason star and practice squad member Jamaal Branch took it down near the goalline on a nine-yard run. Branch would get his own touchdown in the second quarter when he took a pass from Jamie Martin in and scored from sever yards out, which made it 14-7. That score was set up by a great 65-yard gainer by deep threat Devery Henderson, who was catching passes from Jamie Martin well into the third quarter.

The Panthers and Jake Delhomme, recovered from a thumb injury, saw the Saints' starters for only a few drives, and some Saint defenders not at all. Youngster Josh Cooper started for Will Smith at right defensive end, Jason Craft for Fred Thomas at cornerback and Jay Bellamy started for Omar Stoutmire at strong safety, but the rest of the starters would soon give way to the likes of Terrance Melton, Danny Clark, Alfred Fincher, Curtis DeLoatch, Antwan Lake, DeJuan Groce, Bryan Scott, Trevor Johnson and Steve Gleason, who all saw extended time on defense instead of special teams only. Delhomme had an understandably good day, but did direct a scoring drive on his first drive, hitting Steve Smith for the first of two scores to tie the game up. DeShaun Foster gashed the Saints a couple of times on that drive to help set up the score, and finished with 79 yards on 19 carries. First round pick DeAngelo Williams had seven yards on nine carries.

Foster scored from two yards out to tie the game at halftime, and the Panthers jumped ahead early in the third when Chris Gamble picked off Jamie Martin and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. Martin, playing behind a second string line, was harassed all day by the Panthers, for five sacks and ten credited hurries. Noticeably absent from the defensive assault of the Saints' backup was Julius Peppers, who was invisible on Sunday, for factors including rookie Saints tackle Zach Strief, who played most of the game at left tackle. Panthers rookie OLB James Anderson sacked Martin twice and caused two fumbles, including one that was returned to the Saint 25. Panthers CB Richard Marshall also forced a Martin fumble that was recovered by Saints center Jeff Faine, while left defensive end Al Wallace collected three hurries and a sack.

Fred McAfee, 38, has played mostly special teams through his 16 years in the NFL and hasn't started a game and seen real action on offense since 1995, when he was a Steeler. On Sunday, McAfee renewed that skill set, finishing with three late carries for 12 yards, including a six-yard burst at the end of the third quarter that scored the Saints' final points. McAfee, who was signed and released and re-signed in past weeks, was drafted as a runningback out of Mississippi College in 1991 but had over 51 carries in a season only once, as a rookie when he gained 494 yards on 109 carries and two touchdowns. Sunday's score brings his career touchdown count to eight, all on offense, and five with the Saints.

The Panthers pulled away in the third quarter with Gamble's defensive touchdown and a fumble return that set up a Delhomme quick pass to Steve Smith for a 28-14 lead. McAfee's score cut it to 28-21 but the Saints would get no closer. John Kasay added a field goal in the fourth and Delhomme kneeled off the final two minutes of the game.

Martin's favorite target was Branch, who was signed off the practice squad for the distinct purpose of collecting trash time while the Saints' top three options, McAllister, Bush and Stecker, were rested. Branch had 211 yards on 34 touches in three preseason games and scored two touchdowns before being released before the regular season. Hidden on the practice squad, the Saints unleashed him on the Panthers, and the former Colgate product ran hard for 29 yards on the ground, 14 in the air and his first NFL touchdown. Martin also found deep threats Jamal Jones and Devery Henderson for gains of 41 and 65 yards, and Billy Miller for 22 yards as Martin went 16/24 for 208 yards, the touchdown to Branch and the interception to Gamble. Jones' three catches for 69 yards were all tough.

WR Michael Lewis didn't catch a pass but was dynamite on kickoff returns, and had a 51-yarder as part of 154 kick return yards on the day. On defense, LB Terrance Melton had eight total tackles playing at linebacker, while Danny Clark stepped big in relief with seven tackles and another on special teams. S Bryan Scott came in with seven solo tackles, and DeJuan Groce had five solo and another on special teams as a host of other Saint backups played. Even former third round pick Alfred Fincher was active, and he found four defensive and two special teams tackles in his first game as a father: his first child was born this week. DE Josh Cooper had five solo tackles as the former Ole Miss Rebel made his first start.

Notes: RB Deuce McAllister, DE Will Smith, WR Joe Horn, CB Fred Thomas, WR Terrance Copper, S Omar Stoutmire, RB Aaron Stecker and TE Mark Campbell were inactive on the day, and the team did not carry an emergency third QB even though they planned on resting Drew Brees. All would have played had the Saints needed a win... P Steve Weatherford had a great day, averaging 44.8 yards on five kicks, one for 55 yards and four downed within the 20. Weatherford finished with a 43.8 average yards per punt, tied for the fifth best season in franchise history with Brian Hansen, and after one season, his career punting average is third best in team history, behind Mark Royals (45.8) and Mitch Berger (43.9), the man he replaced in training camp... The Panthers tried their no-QB single wing offense, but DE Cooper sniffed it out and dropped DeAngelo Williams on the direct snap for a loss... Brees finishes the season with 4418 yards passing, which was the best in team history weeks ago. His season completion percentage of 64.3% beat Jim Everett's 1994 record by .2%. His 26 TD passes tied Everett's and is one short of Aaron Brooks' 2002 record. His 96.2 passer rating is tops in team history, beating John Fourcade's mark of 92.0 set in 1989. It is easily the single greatest season for a Saints quarterback... The Saints will select no sooner than 21st in the 2007 NFL Draft, and no later than 29th, unless they make the Super Bowl. Tampa Bay may have the third overall pick, pending a coin flip with Cleveland as both teams finished 4-12 with a .535 opponent winning percentage. Atlanta owns the 10th overall pick, which they will make with a new head coach. Carolina picks 14th... The Saints spent considerable effort to thank the near-capacity crowd on hand for New Year's Eve, including a special public address message and a lengthy handshake session at the rim of the field... The Superdome makeover began shortly after the game in preparation for the Sugar Bowl...

Playoffs: The Saints will host Philadelphia if the Eagles beat the Giants. If the Giants win, the Saints will host the winner of the Seattle-Dallas game, played Saturday night. The Saints won't know until Sunday night, when the Eagles-Giants game is played.

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