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NFC Playoffs Report Card: Saints-Cardinals

Grading out the performances from the Saints' 45-14 rout of the Cards in the NFC Divsional Playoffs ...

Quarterback:Kurt Warner entered the game with a 104.6 career postseason passer rating and a chance to surpass record holder Bart Starr (104.8). He fell painfully short. Warner's first-half numbers looked good, especially considering the pressure he was under (8 of 11, 105 yards). But he threw a bad pass that was picked off by DE Will Smith and nearly had another intercepted when throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, who was double-covered in the end zone. Matt Leinart fared no better (7 of 10, 61 yards). Grade: C

Running Backs:Tim Hightower ripped off a 70-yard TD run through the heart of the Saints defense on the first play from scrimmage. But the ball carriers were cast aside for the rest of the game, carrying the ball just 13 times for 31 yards and one touchdown the rest of the day. Hightower later fumbled in the third quarter on a third down in the red zone. He recovered the ball, but lost a chance to run through a hole for a TD. Arizona failed to score on the possession. Grade: Incomplete

Receivers: Arizona's vaunted collection of wideouts could not break open any of the big plays they're known for, as the New Orleans defense kept everything bottled up underneath. The tone was set early: Warner hit Jerheme Urban in stride on the team's second possession for what should have been a big gain, but Randall Gay knocked the ball loose and Darren Sharper recovered. Early Doucet and Fitzgerald also dropped sure receptions, before the game got out of hand. Grade: D

Offensive Line: The O-line paved the way for Hightower's long TD run and later in the first half carved a huge hole in the New Orleans defense, so that Beanie Wells could race for an easy 4-yard TD. But they let the Saints defense abuse their most important player, Warner. Grade: C

Defensive Line: The front four was gashed by the Saints running game (four running backs combined for 29 attempts, 170 yards and 5.9 YPA). They failed to get pressure on Drew Brees (zero sacks). And DE Calais Campbell was called for roughing the passer in the third quarter. Other than that, it was a good day for the Arizona line. Grade: D

Linebackers:Karlos Dansby came to play, with a game-high eight tackles. But the Cardinals defense was gutted badly for the second week in a row, with few standout plays from the heart of the Arizona 3-4. Grade: D

Defensive Backs: Dominique Rogers-Cromartie went out early with injury, which may have been a factor. Regardless, the Cardinals DBs were roasted like a beer-can chicken, surrendering three first-half TD passes. Grade: C-

Special Teams: After one missed FG all year (16 of 17), Neil Rackers had a tough postseason. He missed a potential game-winning 34-yarder with seconds remaining in regulation against the Packers last week. His 50-yarder at the end of the first half this week, when the Cardinals desperately needed points and momentum, fell short. The punt coverage team did not lay a single hand on Reggie Bush, as he punctuated the day's scoring with an 83-yard TD return in the third quarter. Grade: D-

Coaching: The seeds of Arizona's 45-14 loss to the Saints were planted in the off-season, when the brain trust did little to shore up the team's weak-link defense of 2008: It resulted in a postseason disaster, as the Cardinals surrendered 80 points in just five quarters of play, starting with the third quarter against the Packers last week. Ken Whisenhunt and his staff watched their team rip off a 70-yard TD run on its first play ... and then completely abandoned the ground game. It was the most curious and questionable strategic decision of the day. Grade: C-

Quarterback: Drew Brees, fresh off the most accurate passing season in NFL history, rocketed off the launch pad, hitting almost everything he looked at in the first half (five different receivers caught two or more passes before intermission). He cooled off as the game wore on and his team's lead grew comfortable, but ended the day completing 23 of 32 for 247 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT and a 125.4 passer rating. Grade: A-

Running Backs: Reggie Bush gave one of the best performances of his four-year NFL career. He bowled over defenders on his first two carries and made a great tackle-breaking, 46-yard run to lift New Orleans to a 21-7 first quarter lead. Lynell Hamilton also scored a first-quarter TD, just the third of his career, while Pierre Thomas played the role of workhorse with 13 carries for 52 yards, many of them hard fought. Mike Bell had a TD run called back because of a penalty. Grade: A-

Receivers: All the big-name members of the New Orleans air fleet got in on the action, with Jeremy Shockey, Devery Henderson and Marques Colston each grabbing first-half TD receptions. It was an impressive display of the depth of the New Orleans receiving corps. Grade: A-

Offensive Line: Nobody will confuse the 2009 Cardinals with the 1985 Bears, but the Saints' front five did everything it needed to do: It paved the way for a big day on the ground and gave Brees plenty of time to pick apart of the defense. Only a holding call by guard Carl Nicks, which negated a Bell 7-yard TD run, keeps this from a perfect day by New Orleans. But maybe we're nitpicking: Colston caught a two-yard TD pass two plays later. Grade: B+

Defensive Line: The front four didn't have its head in the game after kickoff, surrendering the 70-yard TD run by Hightower on the game's first play from scrimmage. But Will Smith made up for it with an INT, while Bobby McCray knocked Warner senseless on the very same play. Considering Warner's performance the rest of the way, and the fact that he twice yielded the floor to backup Leinart (the first time with the outcome still in jeopardy), the hit may have been one of the bigger defensive plays of the day. Grade: B+

Linebackers: Scott Shanle set the tone when he violently separated Doucet's head from his helmet on a pass over the middle at the end of the second half. Shanle also knocked away a pass intended for Hightower in the third quarter, preventing a potential long gain when the game was still competitive. Arizona's decision to abandon the running game aided the cause, but the linebacking corps did a commendable job in pass coverage. Grade: B

Defensive Backs: Randall Gay had a big day with a team-leading seven tackles and an early forced fumble that was recovered by Darren Sharper; Sharper also hauled in a spectacular INT in the second quarter that was overturned by ticky-tack roughing the passer call (Packers fans might argue that it was not nearly as egregious as the hands on the facemask against Aaron Rodgers on game-winning play a week earlier).Sharper made several big hits, once hammering Fitzgerald and knocking a sure catch from his hands. Grade: A-

Special Teams: Bush exploited a big gap in the Arizona coverage and returned a punt 83 yards for TD to give Saints 45-14 lead and officially end any hope of a comeback. Garrett Hartley was the game's leading scorer, converting six extra points and adding a 43-yard field goal. Grade: A

Coaching: The Saints limped across the finish line with three straight losses, but Sean Payton and his staff quickly laid to rest any questions about their preparation when the games started to count again. The game plan was workmanlike for the league's highest scoring offense. But they delivered a little razzle-dazzle sparkle with a flea-flicker that resulted in a 44-yard TD pass to Devery Henderson. Payton has now led the Saints to the only two conference title games in franchise history; the first home title tilt in history takes place next week. The Saints had the better team and the home-field advantage and should have won, or else we'd be talking a perfect day for Payton and his crew. Grade: B+

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