NEW ORLEANS - Reggie Bush danced around defenders who fell over each other trying to tackle him. Drew Brees was back to passing with pinpoint accuracy, picking apart a beleaguered and depleted Arizona secondary.
A little rest was all the Saints needed to shift their league-leading offense back into overdrive.
That, and a visit from Arizona’s porous defense.
Brees threw three touchdown passes, Bush scored on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run, and New Orleans overwhelmed the defending NFC champion Cardinals, 45-14, in their divisional playoff game Saturday.
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“So much for being rusty,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “That bye week was critical, getting guys healthy. … I knew we were ready, the way we worked all week and we were confident in what we were going to do.”
One win from their first Super Bowl, the Saints will host an NFC title game for the first time in franchise history next weekend when they play the winner of today’s Dallas-Minnesota matchup.
“There’s been a lot of firsts since Sean Payton has been here in the organization and we want to keep that going,” Brees said. “We want to bring this franchise a championship.”
Payton, Brees and Bush arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the same year the team returned to its hometown after spending a nomadic season on the road in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The trio helped the Saints make a storybook run, capturing the franchise’s second postseason win before losing at Chicago in its first NFC Championship Game.
“There’s no fan base that deserves a championship more than New Orleans and the Who-dat nation,” Brees said. “Just the bond that we have with them is special. They give us strength. They give us motivation, and we want to do it for them.”
Jeremy Shockey caught a touchdown pass in his return from a three-game absence. Devery Henderson and Marques Colston also had touchdown catches, and Lynell Hamilton had a short touchdown run for the Saints.
After its 51-45 overtime win over Green Bay in the wild-card round last week, Arizona wound up yielding 90 points in the postseason, the most ever allowed in consecutive playoff games in one season.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” said Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who was hoping to lead his team back to the Super Bowl, where it lost to Pittsburgh last year. “It wasn’t nearly as competitive as we wanted it to be, but sometimes you have those days. Today was one of those days for us.”
It didn’t help that starting defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left knee sprain) and Antrel Rolle (concussion) went out in the first half.
“That hurt us,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “The Saints exploited those matchups. That was pretty obvious.”
Even the Saints’ sometimes soft defense played well, forcing two turnovers, harassing Warner often and knocking Arizona’s 38-year-old quarterback out of the game briefly when, during Will Smith’s interception return, he was blind-sided by Bobby McCray’s block.
Warner was 17 of 26 for 205 yards, but was unable to move Arizona consistently.
Bush, meanwhile, finished with 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving and 109 yards on three punt returns. Colston caught six passes for 83 yards.
“I knew I was going to get a lot of opportunities today to make plays and just be a difference-maker for my team,” Bush said. “I just tried to make the most of it every time I had the ball.”
The victory wound up being so easy for New Orleans that Payton began pulling his regulars early in the fourth quarter.
“We had a plan the whole time,” said Brees, who passed for 247 yards. “It was hard for anybody to understand that plan if you’re not a member of my team, but we trusted in that plan, that process. We executed throughout the week and it showed in the game.”