Saints stay alive

Times Staff Writer

After all the long passes and big runs, all the mayhem at the Superdome on Saturday night, it made sense that the defining moment came down to Deuce McAllister.

A handoff up the middle for five tough yards and a first down.

That simple play allowed the New Orleans Saints to run out the clock on a raucous 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC divisional playoff game.

It was a fitting end to a night when McAllister's workhorse 143 yards put this season's Cinderella team into the NFC title game for the first time, one win from the Super Bowl.

And it touched off a deafening celebration in a city still struggling more than a year after Hurricane Katrina.

"We just had the will to win," McAllister said. "As much as we've been through as a team, as much as this city's been through, we talked about leaving it all out on the field."

The Saints' victory spoiled another feel-good story brewing in Philadelphia, where backup quarterback Jeff Garcia had staged a late-season resurgence.

"We just had too many penalties and mess-ups," Eagles Coach Andy Reid said. "They were able to get us on it."

Despite the losing coach's regrets, this was a game made of dazzling performances.

When Garcia escaped pressure to heave a 75-yard touchdown pass to receiver Donte Stallworth in the second quarter, Saints rookie Reggie Bush answered by running into the middle, then bouncing outside for a short but extraordinary touchdown run.

When the Eagles' underappreciated running back Brian Westbrook bolted 62 yards to give his team a 21-13 lead in the third quarter, the air seemed to rush out of the Superdome and the Saints had to respond.

"I think our players understood what was at stake," Saints Coach Sean Payton said.

Leading up to the game, those players had tried to turn down the volume on their role as civic symbol. This was also about football and they wanted to discuss what it took to finish the regular season with a 10-6 record, good enough for a first-round playoff bye.

But on game day, it was impossible to separate the team from the arduous rebuilding of New Orleans. Beyond the predictable buzz on Bourbon Street, employees at restaurants and shops wore Saints gear and the local paper ran a color illustration of quarterback Drew Brees with a tiny Super Bowl trophy in place of the birthmark on his right cheek.

The chess match between Payton, an offensive whiz, and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was treated with the solemnity of international diplomacy.

The matchup was in evidence all evening.

Johnson would call a blitz on one play, then fake it on the next, dropping extra men into coverage. Payton responded with motion and shifting personnel packages.

Yet, for all these machinations, New Orleans needed some basic grit to scramble back in the third quarter.

Brees began finding his big tight ends in the gaps and seams of Philadelphia's pass coverage, which allowed McAllister to finish off two consecutive drives.

First, he rammed into a mass of bodies at the line and moved the pile five yards into the end zone, losing his helmet but holding onto the ball to close the gap to 21-20.

"He's a horse," said Brees, who passed for 243 yards without an interception.

Minutes later, the veteran back busted loose for 23 yards, then caught an 11-yard swing pass for the winning touchdown.

There was still some football to play.

On a night when Westbrook rushed for 116 yards and Garcia added 240 through the air, the Saints needed enough defense to hold the Eagles to a field goal on a late possession and survive a fumbled pitch by Bush.

All of which led to McAllister's clock-eating final run.

"It was going to be me against a safety to get one yard," he said. "I kind of liked my chances."



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Rare, but well done

Saturday night's 27-24 win over Philadelphia was just the second postseason victory for New Orleans. The Saints' playoff history:

*--* Date Result Round Jan. 13, 2007 New Orleans 27, Philadelphia 24 Divisional Jan. 6, 2001 Minnesota 34, New Orleans 16 Divisional Dec. 30, 2000 New Orleans 31 , St. Louis 28 Wild Card Jan. 3, 1993 Philadelphia 36, New Orleans 20 Wild Card Dec. 28, 1991 Atlanta 27, New Orleans 20 Wild Card Jan. 6, 1991 Chicago 16, New Orleans 6 Wild Card Jan. 3, 1988 Minnesota 44, New Orleans 10 Wild Card




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