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Saints get title the wrong way

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- There's no telling how much money the Washington Redskins cost the French Quarter merchants yesterday.

Bourbon Street was waiting for the first division-clinching win by the New Orleans Saints at home.

NFC South champion hats and T-shirts were waiting in the Saints' locker room.

The Atlanta Falcons did their part by losing to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night. The table was set. A boisterous crowd was braced for a bash of Mardi Gras proportions.

All the 9-4 Saints had to do was beat the 4-9 Redskins. The Redskins, however, held the prolific New Orleans offense in check and upset the Saints 16-10 in front of 69,052 at the Superdome.

The Saints are division champions for only the third time in franchise history and playoff bound thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers' 37-3 win over the Carolina Panthers yesterday. There was, however, no party.

"Well, I won't be celebrating at all tonight in case you're wondering," said quarterback Drew Brees, who failed to get his team into the end zone from deep in Redskins territory in the final moments. "I have a shirt [for winning the division]. I have a hat. They'll go in my closet at home. Our standards are higher than winning the division. We're going to push this one aside and move on."

Brees, who finished 21-for-38 for 207 yards, converted a fourth-and-5 play and a third-and-10 with completions on the Saints' last drive. His screen pass to Reggie Bush gained 15 yards and put New Orleans on the Washington 19 with 1:35 to play.

Brees threw what looked like a touchdown pass to wide receiver Marques Colston on first down, but cornerback Shawn Springs knocked the ball away at the last instant.

"I thought I was going to score," Colston said. "He made a good play on the ball. This is obviously bittersweet. We didn't do what we set out to do today, but at the same time we accomplished what we set out to do at the beginning of the season -- win the division."

On second down, a rush by Bush up the middle gained 4. A short pass to Bush lost 1 on third down. That brought up fourth-and-7 from the 16 with 53 seconds to play. Brees threw to receiver Terrance Copper in the end zone, but cornerback Carlos Rogers broke up the pass. It was Rogers who foiled the Saints' previous drive, intercepting Brees at the Redskins 35.

"The tempo was not where it normally is or should be," said Brees, who had passed for 300 yards or more in six of the Saints' previous seven games.

The tempo among the home fans, though, built as the Saints closed to 10-7 in the second quarter and 13-10 in the fourth and held the Redskins to a short field goal with 4:15 to play.

"It was as loud today at times as I've heard it," Brees said. "But we just never could really get it going."

The Saints played at times as if they had held the celebratory party Saturday night, allowing the Redskins to take a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

"It looked like we were half-asleep to start the game," coach Sean Payton said. "I thought we were sluggish all day. I thought we were flat. I wish I had an explanation for you. I thought we had a good week of practice, but evidently I was wrong."

Still, the Saints won their first NFC South title and are in the playoffs for just the sixth time in franchise history.

Just more than a year ago, team owner Tom Benson was talking to San Antonio officials about moving the team there from Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Winning the division after living through a 3-13 season and Katrina last year was cause for celebration despite the loss, according to five-year veteran defensive end Charles Grant.

"That's a big accomplishment," Grant said. "If anybody tells me to mope around about today, I'm not moping around because it's been a rough five years around here. Now, I'm on the NFC South champions. Nobody expected us to do this."