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(Saturday, January 16th)
Final Score: New Orleans 45, Arizona 14
New Orleans, LA (Sports Network) - Reggie Bush accounted for 217 all-purpose yards and two scores, including an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown, highlighting New Orleans' convincing 45-14 victory over reigning NFC-champion Arizona in a divisional playoff meeting at the Superdome.
The Saints emphatically answered any doubts regarding the effects of a three- game losing streak that spoiled their perfect 13-0 regular season record, as their defense forced two turnovers and posted a shutout in the second half.
The offense that led the league with 510 points was hitting on all cylinders, with Drew Brees tossing for 247 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-32 throws.
"We trusted in the plan. We trusted in the process we went through in the bye week and in the practices this week," Brees said. "We were chomping at the bit to get it going. This is why we fought so hard during the season, to have an opportunity to succeed in the playoffs, and in the end win a championship."
Marques Colston and Devery Henderson each caught a score and amassed 83 and 80 receiving yards, respectively, for New Orleans, which advanced to the conference title game for the second time in four years.
New Orleans will host its first NFC Championship on January 24, welcoming the winner of Sunday's Cowboys-Vikings matchup.
"I'm excited for the city to get a home game again. The fans were loud," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "All three phases we did a good job. Our guys had a lot of energy early on...I'm just really proud of our team."
The NFC West-champion Cardinals took a step towards getting back to the Super Bowl with last week's memorable 51-45 overtime win over the Packers, but the club couldn't keep pace in another shootout.
Kurt Warner was briefly knocked out of the game and ended with 205 yards and an interception on 17-of-26 throws in possibly the last game of the 38-year- old's historic career.
"I've thought about it a lot and have over the last couple of years," Warner said of retiring. "I want to get away from the season for a bit...It won't be a long, drawn out thing. I want to let [the Cardinals] know as soon as I know for sure."
Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells each rushed for a touchdown for the Cardinals, who were already without wide receiver Anquan Boldin (knee, ankle) and linebacker Gerald Hayes (ankle) before losing safety Antrel Rolle and Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to injuries in the first half.
Larry Fitzgerald was held to 77 yards on six receptions in defeat.
Trailing 28-14 late in the second quarter, the Cardinals had the ball at their own 32-yard line when Will Smith popped up from his defensive end position and picked off Warner, who was blind-sided by Bobby McCray on the ensuing return.
As Warner recovered from the hit, the Saints converted a pair of third-down tries before Colston caught a quick, two-yard hitch in the end zone with 1:10 remaining in the half.
Matt Leinart briefly took over under center and moved the Cardinals to the New Orleans 33. Neil Rackers, though, was short on his 50-yard field goal try as the halftime gun went off.
Garrett Hartley's 43-yard field goal at the 8:26 mark of the third padded the Saints lead after the team's exchanged punts to start the second half.
Following another unsuccessful Cardinals possession, Bush lifted the lid off the Superdome when he fielded a punt at the left hash mark and ran parallel before hitting a seam up the middle to leave the coverage unit in the rearview mirror for the clinching 83-yard score.
Warner threw incomplete on 4th-and-2 in the red zone came late in the third quarter, and Arizona recorded just one first down in the final stanza to limp out of the playoffs without much of a fight.
The Cardinals couldn't have asked for a better start, as Hightower took the game's first handoff to the right, reached the secondary without getting touched and faked out safety Darren Sharper en route to a 70-yard TD.
The Saints answered with a 10-play, 72-yard drive that the seldom-used Lynell Hamilton capped with a one-yard plunge.
On Arizona's second play from scrimmage, Jerheme Urban was stripped by Randall Gay after a 28-yard reception.
Sharper returned the fumble to the Arizona 37, and after Colston hauled in a 12-yard pass on 3rd-and-2, Brees found Jeremy Shockey on a deep post for a 17-yard touchdown.
A suddenly swarming Saints defense, along with a deafening crowd, forced a three-and-out, and Bush's highlight-reel touchdown run made it 21-7 with 2:31 still remaining in the first quarter. On the longest postseason run in franchise history, Bush shed a tackler, made a quick cut toward the sideline and used his sprinter speed to dash 46 yards to pay dirt.
"Big-time players make big-time plays in games like this," Bush said. "I knew I was going to get a lot of opportunities today to make plays, to be a difference maker for my team. I just tried to make the most of it every time I got the ball in my hands."
After trading punts, a roughing the passer penalty on Anthony Hargrove negated a Sharper interception early in the second quarter and led to Wells' four-yard TD run 5:20 into the frame.
A flea-flicker fooled the Cardinals secondary on the next possession, leaving Henderson open down the field as the receiver got turned around before making a nice over-the-shoulder grab for a 44-yard score.
"We were playing with a depleted secondary today. That hurt us. They exploited those matchups," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Bush's punt return was the third longest in NFL postseason history. The fourth-year running back ended with 109 punt return yards, 84 yards on five carries and 24 yards on four receptions...Rodgers-Cromartie left with a strained left knee, while Rolle suffered a head injury...Warner, who came in with a 104.6 quarterback rating in the postseason, had a 73.4 rating...Leinart ended with 61 yards on 7-of-10 attempts...Hightower logged 87 yards on six carries...Pierre Thomas gained 52 yards on 13 carries for the Saints, who converted 7-of-13 third-down tries, compared to a 1-of-8 conversion rate for Arizona...The Cardinals were seeking to become the first repeat NFC champion since Green Bay did so in 1995 and 1996...This was the first postseason meeting between these teams...Early Doucet had eight receptions for 68 yards for Arizona.
01/16 21:52:39 ET
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