- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — It was as if Sean Payton didn’t want to leave the field.

While his owner was twirling his umbrella for all of the cameras following the New Orleans Saints’ biggest ever victory — a 27-24 decision over the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC Divisional playoff game at the raucous Superdome last night — Payton outran his three security guards for a victory lap, high-fiving fans and pumping his fists each step of the way.

It was a well deserved and well earned celebration.

After 41 years of mostly losing, the Saints are one step away from their first Super Bowl.

Buoyed by their coach’s imaginative play-calling and the gutsy running of Deuce McAllister, the Saints rallied from an eight-point, third-quarter deficit to reach their first NFC championship game. New Orleans (11-6) will host Seattle or play at Chicago next Sunday at 3 p.m.

“I couldn’t be happier for the people in this town that have been through so much — this is a bright spot,” Payton said. “Our fans are fantastic and they’ve been a big part of our season. The fans that have followed this team through the years have been through more thin than thick.

“A lot has changed around here. It’s a different team and a different time. We were ready to play in the postseason and we’ll be ready to go next week.”

In what clearly was the most entertaining game of this year’s playoffs so far, defense took the night off. The league’s top two offenses combined for four lead changes, 790 yards, five scoring drives of at least 76 yards and a whopping 28 plays that gained at least 10 yards.

Translation: It was the complete opposite of the Indianapolis-Baltimore tractor pull earlier yesterday.

Down 21-13 after Brian Westbrook’s 62-yard touchdown run on the third play of the second half, New Orleans got two touchdowns from McAllister — a five-yard run and an 11-yard catch — to take a 27-21 lead entering the final quarter.

The lead was cut to three points with 11:08 remaining on David Akers’ 24-yard field goal. Philadelphia caught the break it desperately needed with 3:18 to go when Reggie Bush fumbled a pitch from Drew Brees and Darren Howard recovered at the Eagles’ 44.

But the Eagles, who ended their season 10-7 and saw their six-game winning streak snapped, could gain no yards in three plays. Andy Reid initially elected to go for it on fourth down but a false start penalty drove Reid to punt.

Philadelphia never got the ball back.

“We battled right to the end,” Reid said. “We just had too many penalties and too many mess ups. ? In hindsight, maybe we should have [gone for it] because we didn’t get the ball back, but I thought the odds were better that we’d get it back.”

McAllister salted the game with a 5-yard run on third-and-1 with 90 seconds remaining. He gained 143 yards rushing on 21 carries and caught four passes for 20 yards.

“We were able to run it and that ended up being the difference,” Payton said. “Us having a week off and Philadelphia coming off a short week, we hoped to get the run game going and Deuce was fantastic.”

Westbrook was equally impressive, averaging 8.9 carries on his way to a 116-yard game.

The Saints (391.5 yards per game) and Eagles (381.4) entered as the NFL’s top two offenses. In their first meeting — ironically a 27-24 Saints win in October — they combined for 698 yards. After a sluggish start, both offenses got going and had a combined 419 yards at halftime.

New Orleans led 6-0 early in the second quarter on John Carney field goals of 33 and 23 field goals. The Eagles, outgained 137-36 in the first quarter, took their first lead when Jeff Garcia threw 75 yards to former Saint Donte Stallworth. It was the longest completion in Eagles playoff history.

Both teams finished the first half with impressive drives.

New Orleans marched 78 yards on 14 plays to take a 13-7 lead on Bush’s 4-yard run with 5:19 remaining in the half. The Saints were 3-for-3 on third down during the drive.

Philadelphia answered with an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive to take a 14-13 lead into halftime on Westbrook’s 1-yard run.

Westbrook’s second touchdown — the 68-yard run — was the longest run in Philadelphia playoff history.

The Saints answered with a 63-yard drive that included two Billy Miller catches for 44 yards and was capped by McAllister’s 5-yard run. On their next drive, the Saints drove 84 yards. McAllister set up his touchdown catch with a 23-yard run.

“To be 3-13 last year and be picked to finish last again this year,” Saints defensive lineman Charles Grant said, “and now, we’re one win away from playing in the biggest game in the world.”

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