Saints Playoff Games
Jan. 16, 2010: Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints
After a disappointing 2008 season in which the Saints missed the playoffs, Coach Sean Payton was optimistic about '09. "During our 8-8 '08 season," he wrote, "many people had been saying, 'They were first in the NFL in offense. If only they had a defense.'"
But Payton knew it wasn't that simple. "We had failed offensively at Washington to con­vert a third and short and close that game out. We had failed offensively at Denver to take advantage of field position. We had failed offensively in a handful of games in our ability to run the football. ... So it wasn't just the D half of our team that had created disappoint­ment."
But Sean knew the team needed new leadership on defense. So he reluctantly fired De­fensive Coordinator Gary Gibbs, who was the first person Payton hired when he took the Saints job in 2006. The replacement was Gregg Williams. "He was always tough. He brought real confidence. And people around the league respected him." To meet Williams' demand of $1.5 million, Payton gave up $250,000 out of his own salary. (Owner Tom Ben­son paid that back to Payton at the end of the season.)
The move paid off as the Saints moved up six spots in the Points Allowed rankings, from 26th to 20th. That still wasn't great, but when the offense led by QB Drew Brees again ranked first in both points scored and yardage in 2009, the defensive improvement helped the Saints jump from eight victories in 2008 to 13 in '09, enough to earn the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

L-R: Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, Drew Brees
Saints' Season
The Saints won their opening regular season game against the Detroit Lions 45-27. Then came what Payton called "the game that really put us on a roll." The Saints clobbered the Eagles 48-22 in Philadelphia, a tough place to play that Payton called "the antithesis of going to a place like Green Bay with all their bratwurst hospitality."
Incredibly, the Saints won their first 13 games! The closest was a 33-30 overtime win over the Redskins in Week 13. The Saints scored 45 or more points four times in the first six games. Their lowest offensive total came in the last game of the streak, a 26-23 squeak­er over Atlanta.
The 38-17 thumping of New England in week 12 was especially gratifying to Payton since Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was one of Sean's idols. He used Belichick's team as a model in molding the Saints. "'What's their recipe?' I was constantly asking myself. 'How are they doing what they do so well?'"
The win over Washington to go 12-0 clinched the NFC South for the Saints and the playoff berth that went with it. So Payton had to make a decision. "Do you rest your play­ers? Or do you play for a perfect season? Rest and lose momentum? Or do you risk injury to finish unbeaten?"
The Saints finally lost in Week 15 to Dallas in the Superdome. They still had work to do to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs since they were only two games ahead of 11-3 Minnesota with two games left.
Tampa Bay beat the Saints in Week 16 20-17, but the Vikings lost to the Bears. That clinched the top spot. So Payton had another decision to make heading into the meaning­less finale at Carolina. "There was all this talk that no team had ever lost the last three games of the regular season and won a Super Bowl. But you had to weigh this. Did we rest our players, win or lose at Carolina, then get ourselves refocused in the bye week and ready for the playoffs? Or did we say, 'Full speed ahead and lose another one?'"
Payton decided to rest his starters in the final game, a 23-10 loss to the Panthers. "Lots of the national commentators thought we had to play this game to win," he recalled. "They said we needed it to get our momentum back. Absolutely wrong. That was one of the best decisions we made all season: to rest our starters in that game."
Brees, who sat out the regular season finale against Carolina, wasn't concerned about rustiness after not playing for three weeks. "I know what we're capable of. If you just look at our track record, three of the last four years we've had the number one offense in the league. That's a body of work. We know how to play at a high level offensively."
Statistics bore out his confidence. The Saints led the NFL with 510 points scored.
After playing the final game with most starters on the bench and having a bye week, the Saints entered the first playoff game as healthy as they'd been all season.
The Opponent
The 2009 Arizona Cardinals won ten games for the first time since 1976. Their reward was the NFC West Division crown and the #4 seed in the playoffs. They won a 51-45 shoot­out with the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card round.
After quarterbacking the St. Louis Rams to the 2000 and 2002 Super Bowls, QB Kurt Warner led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008. They lost to the Steelers 27-23.
The 38-year-old started all 15 games in 2009, completing 66.1% of his passes for 3,753y and 26 touchdowns with 14 INTs. Compare that with Drew Brees's 2009 statistics: 70.6% completion rate, 4,388y, 34 TDs, 11 INTs
The rushing tandem of Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower gained 1,391y. Warner's favorite receivers were Larry Fitzgerald (97 receptions for 1,092y) and Anquan Boldin (84/1,024). Still, the Cardinals scored only 375 points for the season, 135 less than the Saints.
Arizona's defense was marginally better than the Saints', 325 points allowed to 341.
Gregg Williams' defense would have its hands full defending Arizona's aerial attack. Against Green Bay in the Wild Card Round, Warner had more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four - 29 for 33). Kurt entered the Saints game with the second-highest passer-efficiency rating in NFL playoff history.
"We had to put Kurt down early so he would play with a little fear," said Williams after the game. He also wanted to make sure Warner couldn't step up in the pocket and get comfortabl enough to throw.
LB Scott Fujita told his teammates the day before the game, "I love Kurt Warner. I have nothing but respect for him and wish him nothing but the best in retirement, but tomorrow he's got to go down."
Like his mentor Bill Parcells, Coach Payton loved to use motivational gimmicks to inspire and focus his players. He came up with two for the Arizona game.
He got the first idea from General Manager Mickey Loomis. After DT Rodney Lesley was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, Loomis suggested the Saints put RB Deuce McAllister in the open roster spot. He wouldn't be activated for the game, but his presence would provide a boost to players and fans alike.
At a team meeting the day before the game, Payton played a video montage of McAllis­ter's greatest plays. When the lights were turned back on, Sean introduced Deuce to the team. "It was pretty powerful," said LB Scott Fujita. "For those of us who knew him and played with him, it was emotional. I think that got a lot of us going."
When the Saints came to the locker room for a last run-through the afternoon before the game, they found a black baseball bat in each locker. In keeping with Payton's weeklong challenge to "outphysical" the Cardinals, each bat was engraved with the message "Bring the Wood."
McAllister led the Saints onto the field before kickoff as the sellout crowd of 70,149 chanted "Deuuuuuuce." Reggie Bush roared past Deuce thrusting his black bat above his head as if it were an Olympic torch.
The telecast announcers pointed out that the Cardinals had played the last game of the first round the previous Sunday night and now took the field in the first game of the second round six days later. Would fatigue be a factor for Arizona?

L: Reggie Bush takes field with baseball bat. R: Drew Brees surveys the Arizona defense.
First Quarter
The game could not have started in worse fashion for the Saints. Needing a quick start to silence the crowd, Arizona got it on the first play from scrimmage.
The Cardinals returned the kickoff to the 30. Needing a big play on the road, Arizona got in on the first snap when RB Tim Hightower roared through an opening off the right side and ran untouched to the end zone. Cardinals 7 Saints 0 (14:41)

L: Tim Hightower runs. R: Pierre Thomas
Unperturbed, the quarterback who compiled the highest completion percentage in NFL history during the season guided the offense methodically downfield. Showing no signs of rustiness, the Saints traveled 72y in ten plays–five runs and five passes–to tie the score.
RB Pierre Thomas +1. Brees to WR Lance Moore +7. On third-and-two, Brees to TE Jeremy Schockey +6. First down at the 42. Incompletion to Schockey but Arizona penalized 5y for offside. RB Reggie Bush around right end for a first down at the Arizona 46. After a screen pass was batted down, Brees to WR Marques Colston for 17. First down at the 29. Bush cuts back for 11y and another first down at the 18. Brees to Schockey again to the five. You could have gotten big odds before the game if you bet on rookie RB Lynell Hamilton scoring a touchdown for the Saints. But that's what happened. After Thomas gained four, Hamilton scored from the one. Garrett Hartley's PAT made it 7-7 with 9:17 left in the first period.
Arizona again ran only one play on their possession but with an entirely different out­come this time. From the 18 after the kickoff, Warner fired a strike that WR Jerheme Urban took in stride down the middle. As he raced upfield, DB Randall Gay hit him from behind, knocking the ball loose. DB Darren Sharper scooped it up and weaved 13y the other way to the Arizona 37. Three flags flew at the end of the play. As Saints fans held their breath, the referee reported three personal fouls, two on Arizona and one on the Saints–offsetting penalties that kept the ball at the 37.

Darren Sharper returns fumble.
Using formations to get favorable matchups with the defense, Payton's offense drove to the go-ahead touchdown in four plays. Thomas gained eight off the left side, then was stuffed on second down. So Brees threw to Colston streaking across to the left sideline to move the chains to the 17. With time to move in the pocket to get a throwing lane, Brees whipped the ball to Schockey who took it falling into the end zone at the goal line. Replay showed that Shockey limped from his position on the right of the formation to the left. Saints 14 Cardinals 7 (7:02)
Shockey had not played in the last three regular season games because of a toe injury. But even with a month's rest, he still limped as he ran. While his loss of speed affected his pass receiving, the fiery tight end continued to provide valuable help in pass blocking for Brees, who would not be sacked the entire game.
Arizona avoided disaster on their first play after the kickoff. Warner and Beanie Wells botched a draw play handoff, but Kurt was able to recover for a loss of three. After an incompletion, Warner threw underneath to Doucet who was tackled 6y short of the first down.
Thomas found a hole up the middle for 9y to the 33 to start the Saints' third possession. Then he gained four more for a new set of downs. After Brees dropped off a pass to Thom­as for two, Drew threw a wide receiver screen to Devery Henderson, who broke a tackle and sped for 16y with the aid of a block by TE David Thomas that took out three defenders. Arizona's best defender, DB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, was helped off the field with a leg injury. As the Cardinals' tallest defensive back at 6'2", he was badly needed to defend Saints' 6'4" WR Marques Colston. After the delay, Bush blew through the left side, shook off a tackler, and sprinted 46y to the end zone. Saints 21 Cardinals 7 (2:31)
The Cardinals went three-and-out to give the Saints the ball on the 29 after the punt. But three plays gained only 5y as the quarter ended.
End Quarter 1: Saints 21 Cardinals 7
Second Quarter
After an incompletion, Thomas Morstead punted into the end zone. Warner then led an 80y drive to cut the deficit in half. The Saints thought they ended the advance with an interception, but a penalty nullified the turnover.
On second-and-eight, Warner threw a beautiful pass on a deep in route to WR Steve Breaston, who made a diving catch with Jabari Greer on his back at the 39. Two snaps later, Warner again threw down the right side to Breaston, but FS Darren Sharper de­flected the ball to himself for an apparent interception. But a roughing the passer call on LB Scott Shanle gave Arizona a first down at the NO 44. Given a reprieve, Warner completed three straight passes to Anthony Becht for 8, Hightower for 9, and Breaston for 8 to reach the 19. Greer broke the streak by defending a pass to Fitzgerald at the goal line. Warner then went to the left side to Early Doucet for 15y to the four. Wells plowed over right tackle for the touchdown. Saints 21 Cardinals 14 (9:45)

L: Will Smith grabs Kurt Warner.
R: Devery Henderson catches touchdown pass just before Bryant McFadden tackles him.
The Saints answered right back with a six-play, 83y excursion. After runs by Mike Bell and Bush gained a first down at the 28, Thomas gained two more. Then Brees threw a dart down the middle to Marques Colston who used all of his 6'4" height to snag the ball in stride for 26y to the Arizona 44. Payton then went to his bag of tricks for a flea flicker. Pierre Thomas took a handoff, then tossed the ball back to Drew, who threw to Devery Henderson just inside the end zone several steps ahead of the defender.
Saints 28 Cardinals 14 (6:48)
Warner again threw an interception, and this one stood. On second and six, DE Will Smith started to rush, then backed up several steps and snagged Warner's pass. On the 5y return, DE Bobby McCray delivered a legal blindside block to Warner's chest that knocked him on his back and out of the game for the rest of the half.
McCray talked about his block afterwards, "It's nothing really to brag about. I just saw Will take the ball and just kind of grab it. He had it in his grasp, and I just kind of looked around. I had my head on a swivel. I just saw him (Warner) really go try to make the tackle. I was just able to put a good block on him and put a little hit on him. It was unfortu­nate he went down, but at the same time, I was just trying to block for my team."
It took nine plays, but the Saints padded their lead to 35-14. After Colston caught a pass just out of bounds, Brees threw two straight short ones to Bush for 12y and a first down at the 15. Reggie made the second catch as he was falling to the ground.

T Levi Brown tries to tackle Will Smith after his interception. Kurt Warner lies on the ground.
Brees handed off three straight times, twice to Thomas and once to WR Robert Mea­chem on an end around, for a total of 11y to make it first and goal at the six. After an exchange of penalties put the ball on the seven, Bell ran into the end zone, but holding on LG Carl Nicks canceled the score. From the 17, Brees lobbed the ball to Colston, who made a leaping catch on the left sideline at the two. Then Drew attacked the same defender, Bryant McFadden, with a quick back-shoulder throw to Colston several yards in the end zone. Saints 35 Cardinals 14 (1:15)
Colston: "Any time I have an opportunity to go up and get the ball, that's what I look forward to. We knew going in that we had some looks on the outside that we could take advantage of. With Cromartie going out of the game early, we were just able to get a lot of mismatches."
The Saints set a franchise record for points in a playoff game with a whole half left to play! The Cardinals meanwhile had given up 70 points in back to back halves in their last two playoff games.
Southpaw Matt Leinart took over at quarterback for Arizona and hit Early Doucet twice for 6y each and a first down at the 32. Then Fitzgerald made his first catch of the game for 16y to the 48. Then he snagged another on a quick pass over the middle and got out of bounds at the NO 39 with 0:08 left. Another sideline quickie to Urban gained six to bring on K Neil Rackers. His 50 field goal attempt fell just short.
End Quarter 2: Saints 35 Cardinals 14
Third Quarter
If countless numbers of TV viewers changed the channel at halftime, even more would do so by the end of the third quarter.
Arizona needed to score first in the second half. Instead, they got shutout the last 30 minutes of play.
Receiving the kickoff, the Saints got a first down on the first snap as Brees hit Hender­son over the middle for 15y. But the next three plays gained only seven, and Arizona had the ball at their 12 after Morstead's punt.
To the surprise of many, Warner took the field with the offense and threw to Doucet for 12y on the first play. But his next pass, on third-and-five, didn't connect to force a punt.
The Saints drove from their 36 to the 25 to add three points to their lead. Bush zipped through left guard for 14y before Brees connected with Colston for 11 with a roughing the passer penalty tacked on to put the ball on the Arizona 24. But three pass plays yielded a net of -1, bringing in Hartley for a 43y field goal. Saints 38 Cardinals 14
Arizona gained one first down on a 14y pass to Fitzgerald, but the next pass to Larry gained only four on third down. So Ben Graham punted 45y to the Saints 17, where Bush fielded it near the left sideline. He slid to his right to avoid the first wave of coverage, then turned on the afterburners and sped into the clear untouched to pay dirt.
Saints 45 Cardinals 14 (7:01)

Reggie Bush completes 83y punt return.
Warner completed six straight passes to move Arizona from the 20 to the Saints 10, where he faced second-and-seven. But an incompletion, a loss of one on a run, and another incompletion turned the ball over on downs.
End Quarter 3: Saints 45 Cardinals 14
Fourth Quarter
The only question was whether the visitors would score again. Spoiler alert: They didn't.
Calling more runs than passes, Brees led the Saints to the Arizona 25, where the Cardinals stuffed David Thomas for no gain on fourth-and-one.
Leinart returned but threw two incompletions in a three-and-out series.
After three runs gained only 3y, Morstead punted 50y to the 20.
Arizona made one first down before having to punt.
As the clock moved under two minutes, Brees knelt three times.
Morstead punted, and the Arizona ran one play to end the game and their season.
Saints Locker Room
Coach Payton planted a big kiss of Reggie Bush's cheek. "He was something today." Sean couldn't resist poking fun at critics who questioned his resting his players in the final regular season game. "So much for being rusty. I'm obviously pleased with the way we played. I thought in all three phases, we did a good job."
Drew Brees sounded a similar tune. "You can look at the 13-0 Saints or the ones that finished 0-3, and we know that we're the 13-0 Saints. And we played like that today."
Scott Fujita: "We played with a chip on our shoulder. Throughout the season, people said the defense was still holding the team back. They'd say, 'They're creating more turnovers, but they're still going to be the Achilles' heel.' And then it was, 'Well, they haven't played a real quarterback yet.' It was always something."
Will Smith: "We put pressure on Warner. We hit him a lot. We only got (one) sack, but we got to him a lot. We affected him because a lot of his throws weren't as accurate as they were in the past. ... Up front, we got after him."
DB Darren Sharper on McCray's block on Warner: "I saw it up close and personal. That was maybe the game-changing play. It really set the tone for what we wanted to do, and that's get after the quarterback. For us, it was all about affecting Kurt Warner."
T Jon Stinchcomb praised Reggie Bush, who ended the game with 217 total yards (109 on three punt returns, 84 on five carries, and 24 on four catches). "It adds so much for our offense when such a dynamic player can have a great day."
Cardinals Locker Room
Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed still in a state of disbelief afterward. "The first turnover of the game (Urban's fumble caused by Gay) obviously hurt us. That's something that we can't do. We had a good play on the second play ... and then we turn the ball over, and that's what really hurt us. You can't do that in this situation against that team, against that offense."
Tim Hightower on Arizona's quick start: "We got what we needed: a big play on the road. You have to do that - start fast. And that's what we did. If you would've told me the game would end up like that, I wouldn't have believed you. I really thought if we could've closed that gap and scored one more touchdown early in the game, we were going to be there all day long with them."
Kurt Warner was asked whether this was his last game. "Any time you take a hit like that, it makes you think twice about playing this game."
Spoiler alert: It was his last game, and eight years later, the undrafted quarterback from Northern Iowa was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life
, Sean Payton (2010)
From Bags to Riches: How the New Orleans Saints and the people of their hometown rose from the depths together, Jeff Duncan (2010)