January 13, 2007

Saints Alive! Saints Alive! 27-24 Victory Over Eagles Sends Saints On

McAllister powers Saints past Eagles; defense comes up with just enough stops

The Saints are headed to the NFC Championship game for the first time in team history, after scoring only their second postseason victory in team history on Saturday night against the playoff-hardened Philadelphia Eagles.

Powered by a monster performance by Deuce McAllister (21-143 TD, 4-20 TD), perhaps his hardest running ever, and with just enough defense to stop Jeff Garcia and the Eagles offense, the Saints defeated Philadelphia with the same score as in October, 27-24, but in far more dramatic fashion.

The steady, smash-mouth Saints traded scoring drives with the high-flying Eagles to a 14-13 Philadelphia advantage at halftime. The Saints put two field goals up early in the game, the first set up a 28-yard blast up the right side of the line by McAllister, who flattened Eagles S Sean Considine, and the second by a Reggie Bush field-reversing 25-yard run and a 35-yard strike to Devery Henderson down the left sideline.

Throughout the week leading up to the Saints, ghosts of playoff games past kept arising. Don't forget the 1992 Saints' tragic loss to the Eagles, when Bobby Hebert and the Saints' secondary collapsed. Don't forget the two former Saint stars on the other side who each made big plays; ex-Saint DE Darren Howard recovered a fumble late in the game, but former first round pick WR Donte Stallworth's 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter put the Eagles on top 7-6.

The Saints responded to Stallworth's lightning-quick score behind Fred Thomas with a long scoring drive, a 14-play, 78 yard, 8:19 drive that ate up much of the second quarter. The offense converted three third-and-long attempts on a Bush dump-off gainer, a Bush burst off left guard, and a 19-yard strike and run to Marques Colston.

With Joe Horn held out with a 80-85 percent groin injury on a coaching decision by Sean Payton, Brees hit his backs and tight ends on 13 of 20 completions. Colston led the team with five catches for 55 yards, but the conservative short game and running attack with McAllister and Bush were the modus operandi for the Saints.

The Saints cashed in on their long second quarter drive when Bush ran up the middle, danced left, then gave ground and raced to the right pylon, skipping past a Eagles defender at the corner. It was one of the big plays Bush had on his biggest NFL stage yet. Bush had 52 on 12 carries and 22 yards on three catches.
The Eagles responded to the score with a four minute drive of their own that ended with RB Brian Westbrook, who was electric on the day, sailed over the pile for a score from one yard out inside the final minute.

The Saints got the ball back down 14-13 just before the half, but two sacks stopped their drive and the Eagles called a timeout with 25 seconds left as the Saints rushed their punt team on. Steve Weatherford, one of the many Saints rookies to make a huge impact this year, made his biggest play of the year this time with both his legs. As an Eagles slipped through the Saint line to block the punt, Weatherford's quick thinking saw him tuck the ball, juke as the surprised Eagle dove by, and raced up the field as coverage teams ran as well. By the time the Eagles noticed, the surprisingly fleet Weatherford covered 15 yards on 4th and 13 as Sean Payton shouted from the sidelines to get out of bounds. The Saints used the new life to attempt a hail mary pass three plays later, a Brees moonshot that Colston went up to meet high in the air. The rookie from Hofstra also appeared to bring down the ball in the mess and land on his rear with Eagles falling all over him, but a defender ripped the ball out. The pass was ruled incomplete and Andy Reid raced his team to the locker room up 14-13. Much to Sean Payton's fury and protest, the officials did not review the play in the booth and the half expired.

The second half didn't open much better for the Saints, who allowed Brian Westbrook to break around the right weak side of the defense and outrun free safety Josh Bullocks to the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown and a 21-13 lead.

But those feisty Saints started to made a habit of bouncing back, and with their next drive Brees meticulously moved the ball down the field. TE Billy Miller, forced back into the starting lineup as when Mark Campbell went down early in the game, had big catches of 15 and 29 yards, and set the Saints up with first and goal at the five in the middle of the third. McAllister took it the rest of the way, hitting the pile at around the four yard line and bulldozing through the mass of blockers and tacklers all the way to the goal line, losing his helmet and skullcap in the process but scoring the touchdown that brought the Saints back to 21-20.
It was part of a huge day for McAllister, who in his first career postseason game had one of his biggest career performances. After the defense forced another Eagles punt, McAllister scored his second career postseason touchdown when he capped a nine play, 84 yard, 6:21 drive when he caught a dump-off pass from Brees, skipped past one defender to the left sideline, cut inside and ran through the ankle tackle of another Eagle - blocked well by Terrance Copper - on this way into the end zone from 11 yards out. On this drive, the Saints overcame the second of Jammal Brown's two third quarter holding penalties with the help of an illegal contact penalty on Eagles LB Dhani Jones a play later, a flag that also negated a seven-yard sack by Trent Cole.

McAllister set himself up on that drive with a 23-yard run off left tackle, after Brees hit third-string TE John Owens for a 21 yard gain. Brees was hit and dropped more often in this game that he had almost all season. The Eagles found Brees for three sacks and four credited hurries, but regularly hit the Saints quarterback. The Saints ran the ball 37 to 32 passes on the day, and Brees connected on 20 for 243 yards to eight different receivers. After looking off target early in the game, including a flare pass that hung Bush out to dry for a ferocious hit, Brees came around and made some laser throws.

At this point in the game, the Saints were up 27-21 and teams were hitting hard and fighting for what appeared to be a shootout heading into the fourth quarter. The Eagles started a drive in response to the McAllister touchdown and Garcia gashed the Saints secondary badly for gains of 15, 13 and 24 yards, then Westbrook ran for gains of 15 and 9 to bring up 2nd and 1 at the Saint 4. Down only six, it appeared that Garcia was about to deliver the counterpunch.

That's when the Saints defense stepped up. Westbrook was stuffed running behind right guard, a critical position for the Eagles that was vacated at halftime when started Shawn Andrews, the massive former first round pick, left the game and was brought to the hospital with pain and swelling in his neck. Behind backup right guard Scott Young, Westbrook couldn't gain a yard after gaining 116 yards on his first ten carries of the game, couldn't gain a yard on his final three carries. On 3rd and 1 from the Saint 4, Garcia dropped back to pass, found a defender in his face and dumped a pass off to fullback Thomas Tapeh, who was met promptly by Scott Fujita and driven out of bounds for a two yard loss.

Looking back, that key stand in the Saint red zone was critical for the Saint victory. The Eagles, on fourth and three from the Saint 6, settled for the field goal with 11:12 left in the game. The Saints were still up 27-24 and the score would be final, but not before another stage of dramatics.

After Akers' field goal, the Saints and Eagles exchanged three-and-out punts. With 8:26 left, the Saints found themselves in an eerily familiar setting. Back on October 15, 2006, the Saints got the ball at their own 15 with 8:26 left on the clock, and never gave it up. Marching methodically down the field with the score tied 24-24, the Saints even kneeled three times inside the two minute warning before allowing John Carney to kick the game-winning field goal as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Now, in the playoffs and almost two months later, the Saints had the ball at their own 29 with 8:20 left on the clock, set to start another game-clinching drive down the field. Four straight runs by McAllister behind Jammal Brown and Jamar Nesbit netted 13 yards, a first down and almost two and a half minutes off the clock. On 2nd and 9, Brees went deep for Terrance Copper off of play action but overthrew his receiver, who was open down the middle of the field. On 3rd and 9 with 5:49 left, Brees hit the clutchest throw of his Saints career yet, striking Colston on the middle slant for a 13 yard gain and a fresh set of downs. Bush and McAllister smashed their way for another first down, part of a 210-yard rushing day for the Saints, before disaster struck.

On 2nd and 7 from the Eagle 32 with 3:24 left and the clock running, Brees fired the shallow toss to Bush in the backfield. Perhaps he took his eye off the ball because Eagles DE Juqua Thomas was looming, or he was preparing for his cutback, but Bush shortfingered the ball and it skipped off his fingertips deep into the backfield. As the air leapt from the lungs of every Saints fan around the world, Bush and a diving Brees couldn't beat former Saint Darren Howard to the ball, and the long-time Saint who left New Orleans for Philadelphia last March in free agency recovered the botched toss at the Eagle 44 with 3:18 left.

Now it was time for another huge Saint defensive stand. A high-flying Fred Thomas smacked Westbrook for a one-yard loss on a short pass, then Fujita stuck Westbrook in the right flat after only a one yard gain. On third down, Fujita was there again as Garcia's pass to Westbrook fell incomplete. It was 4th and 10, and the Eagles - who have a knack for long fourth down completions in the playoffs - appeared to find some of their 1992 magic. Falling backwards in the face of the pass rush, Garcia floated a pass down the middle which was somehow caught for a 20-yard gain.

But a false-start penalty on substitute right guard Scott Young nullified the play, setting up 4th and 15. Mark that one down to an absolutely deafening Superdome crowd.

In a decision that will be questioned in southeastern Pennsylvania all offseason, Andy Reid punted with 1:56 left on the clock, down three and in possession of two timeouts.

The Saints got the ball back, needing only one first down to ice the game. Deuce plowed his way to gains of four and five yards, with the Eagles burning their timeouts after each run. On third and one with 1:37 left, the Saints needed the first down to ice the game.

Deuce got it, slicing through a gaping hole for a five yard gain and setting up a pair of Brees kneels to run the remaining time off the clock.

The Saints have won their second ever postseason game, their first ever divisional playoff round game, and are headed to their first ever conference championship game.

The Saints' two stud defensive ends delivered, hounding elusive Jeff Garcia in the backfield and forced almost all his throws on the run. Smith and Grant combined for three hurries and 10 tackles, while WLB Scott Shanle collected the team's only credited sack. Smith as guilty of a major facemask penalty on the play, which turned the eight yard loss into a seven yard gain and a first down, as the penalty was assessed on the result of the play.

CB Mike McKenzie and SS Jay Bellamy each had four solo tackles, while FS Josh Bullocks had three total tackles, three passes defensed and as many dropped possible interceptions. DT Brian Young was credited with three quarterback hurries as well.

Notes: In addition to Andrews, the Eagles lost LB Shawn Barber during the first half... WR Joe Horn was a mostly healthy sit on Saturday, reportedly better than 80% from a groin muscle tear. S Omar Stoutmire was also inactive, replaced by Jay Bellamy in the lineup... DT Rodney Leisle was inactive as DT Hollis Thomas returned to the starting lineup. Thomas had two solo tackles and an assist, but was gassed on the sideline after a five week layoff... The Saints controlled the clock for over nine minutes in the second quarter, over ten minutes in the third, and 8:34 in the fourth... The Saints were only called for three penalties to the Eagles' six... The Saints outgained the Eagles 435-355... Kickoff specialist Billy Cundiff put all six of his kickoffs into the Eagles end zone, two for touchbacks.

The Bears scored a 27-24 overtime victory against the Seahawks, meaning that the Saints will travel to play in Chicago for the NFC Championship at 2pm CST on Sunday, January 21.

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