Hartley comes alive in time to save Saints

New Orleans - Sean Payton's patience with second-year kicker Garrett Hartley was rewarded with the New Orleans Saints'; first Super Bowl berth.

Suspended for the first four games of the regular season for using a banned stimulant, Hartley eventually won back his job in December, then wound up staring down the biggest 40-yard field goal try in Saints history Sunday night.

Hartley overcame his nerves – not to mention bad memories of a missed 37-yarder that could have spared the Saints an embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay – and split the uprights, lifting New Orleans to a 31-28 win over Minnesota to lift the Saints to the NFC championship.

While he was mobbed by teammates, the Louisiana Superdome erupted in earsplitting cheers, then watery-eyed fans hugged one another.

Hartley signed in October 2008, seemingly solving a run of problems in the Saints’ kicking game by making all 13 of his field goal attempts during his rookie season out of Oklahoma.

During the summer, however, Hartley tested positive for use of a banned stimulant and said it was because he used Adderall to stay awake on a long drive from Dallas to New Orleans.

The Saints then signed veteran John Carney, who held the job through the first 11 games of the season, but put Hartley back on the roster as soon as his four-game suspension ended.

Hartley finally saw his first action against the Washington Redskins in early December – a game that ended with Hartley winning it with a short field goal in overtime. Hartley came into the NFC title game 10 of 12 on field goals this season, making all but one attempt under 50 yards.

Just enough Bush

Reggie Bush’s playoff encore didn’t have to be dazzling for New Orleans to get to its first Super Bowl.

Bush couldn’t quite match his game-breaking performance from the Saints’ 45-14 victory over Arizona a week earlier – his punt returning hurt more than it helped because of a muffed punt. But he scored a key touchdown and had a big catch to sustain another scoring drive in New Orleans’ 31-28 win Sunday night.

“You know what? It’s a team game and that’s one of the things that I’m learning slowly but surely,” Bush said. “I can’t just try to put the team on my back and win the game. It’s not like the college days or the high school days. Not every game am I going to be the star.”

Bush scored a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a third-and-goal play from the 5, catching a short pass along the sideline, then twisting and muscling his way to the pylon to give the Saints a 28-21 lead.

“When opportunities come you make the most of it,” Bush said. “I had a chance to bounce back, had a touchdown that was huge for us. It was the last touchdown we scored and it’s a tremendous feeling just to be a part of this.”

Bush had two catches for 33 yards and seven rushes for only 8 yards and no punt return yards.

Still, the Saints might not have pulled out the biggest triumph in club history if not for Bush’s score.