The Saints scored every way but barefoot. They scored on prolonged drives and sudden strikes. They scored on a flea-flicker and a fade. They scored off a turnover and a punt return. They scored with an undrafted free-agent running back named Lynell Hamilton. And they scored twice with perhaps the greatest amateur runner ever, who you may have forgotten, named Reggie Bush.
At a team meeting Friday night, Saints head coach Sean Payton passed out baseball bats to all his players, inscribed with the saying: "Bring the wood." Bush was so enamored with the lumber that he took it to the Superdome on Saturday and even carried it with him onto the field. At kickoff, Payton had to tell him to put it down.
The Saints swung hard and fast. They rolled up 35 points in the first half, more than they had ever scored in any postseason game. At the break, Brees had already tossed three touchdowns. Bush had already amassed more rushing yards than he had in all but one game this season. The Cardinals defense looked even worse than last week, if that's possible. "I think we brought the wood," Bush said.
With the Superdome rollicking like it was 2006 -- the first season after Hurricane Katrina -- the Saints pounded the Cardinals 45-14 and silenced the notion that home-field advantage does not matter in the playoffs. They looked exactly like the team that won 13 games in a row to start this season, nothing like the team that lost three in a row to end it. Everyone expected this game to be a shootout. The heavy artillery flew in every direction.
For some franchises, winning a divisional playoff game at home is to be expected. But this was only the third playoff victory in Saints history and it sets them up to host the NFC championship game for the first time next Sunday -- against Dallas or Minnesota. Whatever team comes to New Orleans had better bring a lot of Excedrin and a much better scheme than Arizona.
The Cardinals knew they would have to deal with Brees, Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey, but Bush is always a wild card. As a rookie in '07, he set a record for receptions by a first-year tailback and shone in the playoffs. But since then, he has been hobbled by injuries to his left knee. He rushed for more than 35 yards only twice this season. He has not had more than six carries in a game since September. On occasion, he was booed. It was hard to tell if he was bothered by the looming NCAA investigation or simply not as effective as evaluators once thought. The Saints have learned that Bush is not an every-down back, but he can still electrify the masses at the right time and place. He will lead the highlight shows once again Saturday night with two unforgettable dashes. The first came on a handoff, when he was literally lifted into the air by cornerback Bryant McFadden, forced his way back down to earth, and outran every Cardinal 46 yards to the end zone. The second came on a punt return, when he jogged parallel along the 16-yard-line, before sprinting up-field 83 yards. It felt like USC all over again -- except for the shots of girlfriend Kim Kardashian.
The most impressive part of Bush's performance was not the big plays, but the tough ones. He moved the chains with five-yard runs and made clutch catches with defenders hanging off his hip. He finished with 217 all-purpose yards, 84 rushing. Considering that Bush could be auditioning for next season -- his contract will count $13.5 million against the cap -- this game proved his worth. Despite his limitations, he can still command the big stage. "This is what you play for," he said.
The outcome signaled Bush's resurgence and Kurt Warner's potential departure. Warner's last pass of the first half was intercepted, and as he fought to make a tackle, he took a painful shot in the chest from defensive end Bobby McCray that left him gasping for air. Warner returned in the second half, but the deficit was too great and the Saints defense too stiff. Matt Leinart jogged onto the field to take the final snaps for the Cardinals -- Leinart and Bush, reunited again.
For college football fans, it was a reminder of the good old days. But in the Superdome, it was the dawn of something new.