The Saints March In To 1st NFC Title Game

deuce mcallister - new orleans saints
Deuce McAllister and the Saints, in a season of rebirth, secure their first appearance in the NFC championship game in team history with a pulsating victory over the Eagles at the Superdome. (Rob Carr - AP)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 13 -- The New Orleans Saints, in their season of rebirth, secured their first appearance in an NFC title game in team history. And they kept the Louisiana Superdome rollicking Saturday night with a pulsating performance in a back-and-forth conference semifinal, holding on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-24.

The Saints, the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, used a pair of third-quarter touchdowns by tailback Deuce McAllister, one on a run and one on a pass from quarterback Drew Brees, to turn a 21-13 deficit into a 27-21 lead. That was just enough for them to outlast the third-seeded Eagles and give the Saints the second postseason triumph in their history. They will either host the Seattle Seahawks or play at Chicago next Sunday in the NFC championship game.

"This year, some things have happened for us where it's like, 'Wow, this might be destiny,' " McAllister said. "We think our offense can take the ball and score on anybody, and our defense is playing really well."

McAllister rushed for 143 yards and rookie tailback Reggie Bush added a second-quarter touchdown run for the Saints. The Eagles got a 75-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jeff Garcia to wide receiver Donte Stallworth in the second quarter and two touchdown runs by tailback Brian Westbrook, including a 62-yarder in the third quarter.

They pulled within three points on place kicker David Akers's 24-yard field goal with just over 11 minutes to play, but couldn't get even and their six-game winning streak ended. The Eagles recovered a fumble on a botched pitchout from Brees to Bush with about three minutes to go, but the Saints forced a punt and ran out the clock. The Eagles had an apparent fourth-and-10 completion negated by a false start penalty and Coach Andy Reid chose to punt the ball away rather than leave his offense on the field for a fourth-and-15 gamble with 1:56 left.

"I guess, with hindsight, we should have done that," Reid said. "But I felt we'd get the football back."

The Saints were the NFL's poignant success story this season, returning to New Orleans the year after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina and becoming one of the league's most exciting teams. But the Eagles also were an unlikely success, persevering through a midseason stretch of five losses in six games and overcoming quarterback Donovan McNabb's season-ending knee injury to win their fifth NFC East title in six years.

The Eagles lost a mid-October game here on a last-second field goal by Saints place kicker John Carney. But they came into this contest as the NFC's hottest team, and they got an emotional boost on the second play of the game when cornerback Sheldon Brown knocked Bush off his feet with a jarring hit on an incomplete pass. But Bush stayed in the game and the Saints moved in front on their second possession. McAllister ran over safety Sean Considine on his way to a 28-yard romp that led to a 33-yard field goal by Carney.

Carney drilled another short field goal in the opening minute of the second quarter but the Saints wished they'd gotten more. Bush went right, then all the way across the field to the left on a 25-yard run, and wideout Devery Henderson beat cornerback Rod Hood along the sideline and hauled in Brees's well-placed lob for a 35-yard gain. That gave the Saints a first down at the Eagles 4-yard line. But running back Aaron Stecker couldn't hold on to Brees's third-down pass into the end zone, and Carney connected from 23 yards.

The Eagles, to that point, had done nothing on offense. Their first three possessions had ended with punts. The Saints were pressuring Garcia into errant passes and bottling up the running game that had served the Eagles well since McNabb got hurt. But the Eagles had gotten the offense revved up after a sluggish start in last weekend's first-round playoff triumph over the New York Giants, and it took them only one big play to take the lead Saturday.

Stallworth, the former first-round draft pick by the Saints who was traded to the Eagles in the preseason when it became clear that Brees could rely on rookie Marques Colston as his top target, sprinted past cornerback Fred Thomas. Garcia got the ball there, and Stallworth made the grab and outraced Thomas to the end zone for the longest pass play and longest touchdown in Eagles postseason history. The Saints had an immediate response, with Bush serving as the centerpiece on a 14-play touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock. The rookie covered the final four yards with a brilliant run in which he was stopped in the middle of the line, but bounced outside and motored into the right corner of the end zone.

The Eagles used a pair of third-down completions by Garcia to maneuver into position for Westbrook's one-yard touchdown leap over the pile in the final minute of the first half. Colston momentarily grabbed Brees's Hail Mary heave on the last play of the half but lost the ball while on the ground in the end zone, and the teams headed to the locker room at halftime with Reid hurriedly waving his players off the field and the fans screaming for an instant replay reversal that wasn't forthcoming.

Westbrook increased the Eagles' lead in the opening moments of the third quarter by getting into the clear on a simple, straightforward running play and dashing to the end zone for the longest postseason rush in club history. The Saints didn't wilt, though, with McAllister bulldozing his way to a five-yard touchdown to narrow the deficit to 21-20 and then taking a swing pass from Brees and weaving into the end zone again for an 11-yard score.

"It was a great football game," Garcia said. "It's just unfortunate from our standpoint that we left some plays on the field that could have made a difference. It was a good season for us. It's sad to see it end."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company