- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Plenty will be discussed about the New Orleans Saints this week leading into Sunday’s NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears, from new coach Sean Payton to new quarterback Drew Brees to a new attitude that has helped them improve from 3-13 to the cusp of the Super Bowl.

But a prime reason New Orleans is playing in its first conference title game is because of something old.

Deuce McAllister was the catalyst in New Orleans’ 27-24 divisional playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday. He rushed for a season-high 143 yards on 21 carries, averaging an impressive 6.8 yards an attempt. He scored one rushing and one receiving touchdown as the Saints won the biggest game in franchise history.

“He couldn’t have played any better than he did,” Brees said. “He had that look in his eyes. He was a horse. You could tell we were going to ride him, and when we needed the big runs, he gave it to us.”

The Saints, who led the NFL in passing yards during the regular season, were clinging to a three-point lead in the fourth quarter when they hopped aboard McAllister’s back.

With a little more than eight minutes left, New Orleans was able to run nearly five minutes off the clock thanks to six carries by McAllister for 19 yards before a botched pitch from Brees to Reggie Bush was fumbled at the Eagles 44.

After Philadelphia punted with 1:56 left, McAllister sealed the game with a 5-yard run on third-and-1 from the New Orleans 31.

“This was my first opportunity to be in the playoffs, and I didn’t want to be one-and-out and asking myself what I should have done to make us more successful,” McAllister said.

It is fitting after a season highlighted by the exploits of Brees, the decisions of Payton and the emergence of seventh-round draft pick Marques Colston at wide receiver that a player who has been with the Saints longer than five minutes was crucial in winning a playoff game.

McAllister has played all six of his NFL seasons with the Saints, experiencing everything from playing behind Ricky Williams to gaining 1,641 yards in 2003 to missing most of last season with an ACL injury.

Last offseason, Payton and his new staff revamped the roster, bringing in 27 new players. McAllister survived the house-cleaning and produced his fourth 1,000-yard season. More importantly, he helped the Saints to their first winning record since 2002 and their first playoff berth since 2000.

McAllister survived the roster purge even though it seemed he might be phased out when Bush fell to the Saints as the No. 2 pick on draft day.

McAllister didn’t feel threatened because he shouldn’t have been. At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, he is the classic, every-down back. Bush, at 6-feet, 203 pounds, can’t take the pounding of 25 to 30 carries a game, so he has been used in a variety of positions for the Saints’ top-ranked offense, which led the league with 391.5 yards a game.

“He’s a true professional,” Brees said of McAllister. “He was in a situation that, when we got Reggie, a lot of guys might have looked at that as a negative, but he embraced it as a positive because he knew he would still get his opportunities.”

McAllister has guided Bush and has discovered that less is more within the Saints’ offense — less touches for him means more opportunities for the other playmakers.

“From the time I came here, Deuce has welcomed me and has been nothing but a great leader for me,” Bush said.

McAllister had 244 carries — a personal low for a full season — for 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns. Fifty-four of his carries were for first downs.

Fewer carries also have left McAllister fresher for the stretch run.

In games 7 through 11, McAllister averaged 13 carries and 42.8 yards a game.

But in his last five games, including last week, he averaged 22 carries for 109.2 yards, including four 100-yard games.

“The great thing about this team is that we don’t have selfish players,” Bush said.

That can’t be said about some past Saints teams, which had rosters that had ability but often pointed fingers. Leaders like McAllister and receiver Joe Horn remained with the team and have bought into Payton’s approach.

“It’s every guy being accountable and every player depending on each other,” McAllister said. “We’ve always had talent here. We just didn’t put it together.

“In the previous years, we would drop a pass, make a turnover or do something else. We were always one or two games away. This season, things started happening, and we were like, ‘Wow, maybe this is our destiny.’ ”

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