For New Orleans Saints fans it was a 40-year, two week wait - and well worth the countdown.
In the most important game in the history of the franchise, the boys in black and gold put on a terrific show at the Superdome in front of home folks and a huge national audience.
In the Saints 27-24 victory over the talented Philadelphia Eagles, the team earned a shot at the NFC championship game. And now, the boys are off to Chicago to face the always-tough Bears. The boys in black advanced to the NFC championship game with a 27-24 overtime victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
The Saints win over the Eagles was in large part the work of the team’s superstars. When the chips were down, the big plays made by Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Scott Fujita, Charles Grant and, oh yes, Deuce McAllister, made the difference.
In clutch situations, the former Ole Miss running-back rose to the occasion against a rugged Eagle defense.
Overall McAllister accounted for 143 yard rushing and one rushing touchdown. And he caught four passes for 20 yards and another score.
“Give our offensive line all the credit, they did their job - and I just went out and did mine, too,” McAllister said. “I knew I was going to get quite a few 'touches' tonight, but the holes were there for me and I made the most of my opportunities. It was a great win for the team and for the community. The fans were phenomenal.”
While the Saints rushed for 208 yards and averaged a gaudy 5.6 yards per rush, quarterback Drew Brees also had a strong game.
Despite not having All-Pro wide receiver Joe Horn for the contest, Brees completed 20 of his 32 passes for 243 yards and one score with - perhaps even more importantly - no interceptions.
“We know when we don’t turn the football over we have the talent to put points on the scoreboard,” Brees said. “Reggie fumbled, and it was unfortunate, but our defense held strong at the end. And our fans - they are the greatest football fans in the world. And they deserve this win. We all understand that if you win three games in a row you win the big prize. That’s our focus to keep this up and play at the same level we have played at each week during the regular season.”
While the Saints offense played powerhouse ball for most of the game, so, too, did the Eagles offense.
Halfback Brian Westbrook had a slow first half, but in the second half the diminutive runner rushed for 116 yards on 13 carries and scored two touchdowns. But after the game, the all-pro runner made it clear that he was disappointed in his performance as a receiver.
“The Saints defense was outstanding and I can’t say enough about how our offensive line and quarterback (Jeff Garcia) played, but I let this team down due to my drops on some easy catches," he said. "I just don’t understand what happened on those plays, but if I had made those catches things might have been different.”
Westbrook was right on target about his three costly drops - and also the tremendous play of Garcia.
The 36-year old signal-caller completed 15 of his 30 throws for 240 yards and one touchdown, but it was his elusiveness in the pocket that impressed the Saints defense.
“The guy was great,” said Saints defensive end Charles Grant.
“Every time we put real heat on him, he would somehow slip away from a tackle or a sack and make a big play downfield. But as a defense we made the big plays when he had to. We gave up some big plays (four plays of 25 yards or more), but we made some, too.”
One of those great stops was an open-field tackle on a third-and-one situation by linebacker Scott Fujita on the four-yard line midway into the fourth quarter. The Eagles were forced to settle for a field goal instead of a possible game-winning touchdown.
Now the Saints are off to the Windy City and the NFC Championship game. If we all thought that last week’s playoff game was huge, the bar has been raised a notch or two. What a ride for the Saint-Sational Saints.
“Who dat? Who dat say they gonna to beat them Saints…?" One more win, my friends, and the Saints are Super Bowl bound.