Nothing has ever come easy for the New Orleans Saints. Naturally, winning their first playoff game after 34 years and knocking the defending Super Bowl champions out of the playoffs wasn’t any different.
Aaron Brooks threw three touchdown passes to Willie Jackson, and the Saints held off a huge fourth-quarter rally from the St. Louis Rams for a 31-28 victory Saturday.
From the voodoo ceremony before kickoff to owner Tom Benson’s famous Benson Boogie at the end, it had the makings of a truly New Orleans scene, a celebration befitting a breakthrough after decades of frustration and an 0-4 lifetime playoff record.
But there was fear, too.
Saints of Old
After going ahead 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, New Orleans (11-6) looked like the Saints of old, watching Kurt Warner drive the Rams to three quick touchdowns, shaving the deficit to 31-28.
After the final touchdown at the 2:36 mark, the Saints recovered the Rams’ onside kick. The Rams (10-7) forced a punt, but Az Hakim muffed an easy fair catch at his own 11, and New Orleans recovered.
Brooks simply took a knee three times, and one of the most downtrodden franchises in sports history finally had reason to celebrate.
The Saints, who surprised everyone to win just their second NFC West title this season, will try to keep the magic going next weekend in Minnesota.
The Rams, who made the NFC wild-card game last week with the unlikely scenario of a victory at New Orleans combined with a Bears upset of the Lions, had five turnovers, a number of costly penalties and Warner’s ineffectiveness until the game was virtually out of reach.
Warner threw for 365 yards—most after the Rams fell far behind - and three interceptions, while losing one fumble. He wasn’t sharp until the end, possibly because of the grogginess and light-sensitivity he experienced after a concussion here last week.
The NFL’s Most Valuable Player, Marshall Faulk, had no such excuses, except a New Orleans defense that got tough after being embarrassed last week, allowing him 220 yards rushing in the 26-21 loss. The Saints held him to a season-low 24 yards rushing and made him a nonfactor in the passing game until New Orleans led 31-7.
So, who were the game’s playmakers? As usual, if they were playing for New Orleans, they couldn’t be household names.
Brooks, a second-year quarterback making just his sixth career start, finished with 266 yards passing and four touchdowns—a Saints playoff record, of course. He also led New Orleans in rushing with 26 yards, five more than journeyman Terry Allen, who came out of retirement to join the Saints in November.
Jackson, an unheralded veteran, had six receptions for 142 yards and matched an NFL playoff record with his three touchdown catches. Fittingly, he was thrust into the spotlight when the Saints’ receiving leader, Joe Horn, sprained his ankle in the first quarter.
With Horn on the sideline, the Saints played the bulk of their first playoff game since 1993 without their leading receiver, passer and rusher. Quarterback Jeff Blake (foot) and running back Ricky Williams (ankle) have been gone for weeks.
Another unknown, Robert Wilson, also caught a touchdown pass, his first of the season.
Safety Sammy Knight had two interceptions, including an off-balance, one-handed grab of Warner’s pass that negated Hakim’s 65-yard punt return to the Saints 9, after St. Louis closed to 31-13.
Minutes earlier, Warner led the Rams 80 yards to give the Rams life, and not even Knight’s second interception could suck the spirit out of the defending champions.
After quickly stopping the Saints, Faulk caught a screen pass and twisted his way for a 25-yard touchdown, capping a three-play drive and cutting the deficit to 31-20. The Rams recovered an onside kick, and five plays later, Warner scooted in from 5 yards, and a 2-point conversion shaved the deficit to a field goal.