Saturday, January 13, 2007
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Who needs Mardi Gras when you're one game from the Super Bowl?
Deuce McAllister and rookie sensation Reggie Bush gave this battered city a reason to throw itself a party, carrying the New Orleans Saints where they've never been before -- one game from the Super Bowl.
To constant chants of "DEUCE!" or "REG-GIE! REG-GIE!" the Saints used an assortment of spectacular plays to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-24.
"This year, some things have happened for us and it's like, wow, this may be destiny," McAllister said.
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"It means everything," Bush said. "All that stuff we went through as a team, these are the type of games we live for. And this game is even bigger for the city."
The Saints are the first team in NFL history to make a conference championship after losing 13 or more games the previous season.
With victory secured for the Saints (11-6) on McAllister's powerful rushes for a clinching first down to run out the clock, team owner Tom Benson did his "Benson Boogie" on the field. The players hugged and saluted their long-suffering fans while a jazz band belted out tunes.
"I think it means a tremendous amount," quarterback Drew Brees said. "You could see it and feel it after the game, people still standing and yelling and screaming."
It was the veteran McAllister with his two touchdowns and team playoff mark of 143 yards rushing, and the rookie Bush with his collection of magnificent moves, that made the difference in the raucous Superdome.
"It's my first opportunity to be in the playoffs, I didn't want to be one and out," McAllister said. "I didn't want to say, 'If I had done this or prepared differently, we would have been successful.'
"It's just the determination of this team and this city -- to give them everything we have."
Even after Brees' high pitchout got away from Bush with 3:18 remaining and Philadelphia recovering, the Saints would not be denied. Their defense held Brian Westbrook, who was brilliant for the Eagles (11-7), near midfield.
McAllister became the first Saints player to rush for more than 100 yards in the playoffs.
"Deuce was fantastic tonight and they weren't going to stop him," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He ran his heart out."
McAllister scored on a 5-yard run and an 11-yard pass in the third quarter.
The Eagles, who won six in a row after losing quarterback Donovan McNabb, got a superb performance from Westbrook, who rushed for 116 yards and scored twice, including a 62-yard run that was a franchise playoff record.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia's run of success ended, but he combined with former Saints receiver Donte' Stallworth on an Eagles-record 75-yard touchdown in the first half.
McAllister, who missed 11 games last season with a knee injury, has been overshadowed by the spectacular Bush and surprising seventh-round draft pick Marques Colston. But he came through when he was needed most against the NFC's hottest team.
So did Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner whose arrival after Houston passed on him in the draft lifted the spirits of the Gulf Region. He scored on an eye-popping 4-yard run in the first half and had an equally scintillating 25-yarder to set up one of John Carney's two field goals.
So let the parties begin -- at least until the conference title game.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," said Payton, the NFL Coach of the Year. "We just hope we can put a little kick in their step Monday and Tuesday, and give them something to look forward to next weekend."
McAllister's 28-yard run set up Carney's 33-yard field goal for an early lead. And Carney's 23-yarder in the second quarter that made it 6-0 also was the result of a long run -- by Bush.
The rookie started to his right, but with a bunch of Eagles in his way, he reversed field. After faking going down the middle, he sped to the left sideline and picked up 25 yards.
Brees then threw his best pass of the half for a 35-yard gain to Devery Henderson behind Rod Hood, who was in for injured Lito Sheppard, Philadelphia's best cover cornerback.
Garcia trumped that with his perfect pass to Stallworth beyond Fred Thomas, the longest pass play and longest touchdown in Philly's playoff history.
The Saints accepted the challenge and marched 78 yards in 14 plays. Bush pulled off another stunner when, from the Eagles 4, he was stopped up the middle, broke right and outraced the defense to the corner of the end zone for a 13-7 lead.
But Philly's resourcefulness on third downs highlighted an 80-yard drive to the go-ahead TD on a 1-yard leap over the pile by Westbrook. Garcia found Reggie Brown for 32 yards and Hank Baskett for 25 on third-down plays, with both receivers wide open.
The half ended in confusion. First, punter Steve Weatherford gained 15 yards and a first down when he saw his kick was about to be blocked and he took off to the right. Then Brees' desperation pass into a group in the end zone momentarily was caught by Colston. William James then ripped it loose, and the Saints stayed on the field hoping for a video review by the replay booth. The Eagles, meanwhile, headed to the locker room, soon followed by the officials.
Eagles All-Pro tackle Shawn Andrews injured his neck in the first half and was taken to a hospital with swelling. ... Eagles LB Shawn Barber injured his ankle. ... The Saints also beat the Eagles 27-24 here during the season. ... Stallworth finished with 100 yards on three catches for Philly, while Colston had five for 55 and seldom-used tight end Billy Miller caught four passes for 64 yards for the Saints.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair wipes his face in the closing minutes of the AFC divisional playoff...
(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)
BALTIMORE (AP) -- Peyton Manning couldn't get Indianapolis into the end zone and, for once, it didn't matter.
That's because Adam Vinatieri provided the Colts with all the offense they needed to advance to the AFC championship game.
Signed during the offseason specifically for his playoff experience, Vinatieri kicked five field goals Saturday to put his name in the NFL record book and carry Indianapolis past the Baltimore Ravens 15-6.
"Adam's been exceptional all year," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "You just feel like you're going to make it every time when he goes out there. In games like this, it's necessary."
Although unspectacular, Manning was efficient enough to make up for some of his previous playoff failures and keep alive his hope of playing in the Super Bowl for the first time. All he needed to do was get the Colts close enough for Vinatieri, who did the rest.
"I'm not sure if we ever won one before in the nine years I've played here without scoring a touchdown. My guess is no," Manning said. "You want to get touchdowns and it was frustrating to have to settle for field goals. But we saw how our defense was playing early, and we thought field goals would be enough -- if we got enough of them."
Vinatieri won two Super Bowls with late field goals and scored 117 points in the postseason for New England. He was signed by Indianapolis as a free agent to replace Mike Vanderjagt, who missed a 46-yard field goal with 17 seconds left last season in the Colts' 21-18 playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
Vinatieri justified the acquisition with a flawless performance against the Ravens, connecting on field goal tries of 23, 42, 51, 48 and 35 yards. The fourth kick gave him an NFL-record 33 career postseason field goals.
"Baltimore is the No. 1 defense in the league. Points are at a premium with them," Vinatieri said. "It's hard to score on those guys. The way our defense played -- they stepped up and kept them out of the end zone the whole time -- sometimes you win like that."
Indianapolis (14-4) never trailed in eliminating the No. 2-seeded Ravens (13-4), who were coming off a first-round bye and poised to extract a measure of revenge against the franchise that broke the hearts of Baltimore fans by sneaking out of the city to Indianapolis in March 1984.
"This football team is as disappointed as our fans are, which is matched tenfold by the players," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "(The fans) were deserving of better than that, but it just wasn't going to happen and we will move forward now."
Not until next year. The third-seeded Colts, however, will next face the winner of Sunday's game between San Diego and New England. If the Patriots win, the game will be in Indianapolis.
Vinatieri, who kicked three field goals last week against Kansas City, broke the mark of 32 held by Gary Anderson. The record-setting kick came with 10:57 left in the third quarter and put the Colts ahead 12-3.
That was enough support for a defense that during the regular season finished last against the run. The Colts didn't allow a touchdown, held Jamal Lewis to 53 yards rushing and also forced four turnovers -- intercepting Steve McNair twice and recovering two fumbles.
"You can't turn the ball over in a championship-style game," Billick said. "That's an awful lot to overcome."
Like Vinatieri, McNair was obtained during the offseason because of his success in the playoffs. With McNair leading the way, the Ravens finished with nine wins in 10 games for the best regular-season record in franchise history.
But he went 18-of-29 for only 173 yards, and Baltimore managed only two field goals by Matt Stover in its first playoff game since 2003.
Manning finished 15-of-30 for 170 yards. The victory improved his career playoff record to 5-6.
Baltimore fans were looking forward to this game since the Colts advanced with a 23-8 win over Kansas City last week. Many in Baltimore have never really gotten over the Colts' move to Indianapolis nearly 23 years ago, and those emotions came to the forefront Saturday.
In a tribute to former Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas, who wore No. 19, someone in the lower deck unfurled a sign that read: "19 WILL ALWAYS BE BETTER THAN 18," the number worn by Manning.
The record crowd of 71,162 did all it could to hinder Manning's calls at the line, but he appeared undaunted by the noise from the outset. After the Ravens went three-and-out on their first possession, Manning put together an 11-play drive that produced a field goal.
The volume of the crowd dimmed even further during the ensuing drive, when Ravens tight end Todd Heap lost a fumble at the Baltimore 31 after being hit by Colts cornerback Nick Harper. Referees ruled Heap down, reversed the call after Dungy challenged the call, and Vinatieri followed with a field goal for a 6-0 lead.
Baltimore halved the deficit with a 40-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Ed Reed then picked off a pass by Manning, and the Ravens moved to the Indianapolis 5 before Antoine Bethea intercepted McNair's third-down throw at the 1.
It was the closest Baltimore would get to scoring a touchdown.
The Colts then held the ball for six minutes before Vinatieri kicked a 51-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and bounced through.
"I don't want to say I missed it. I just didn't hit it as good as I could," Vinatieri said. "Thank goodness it was just long enough."
No. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's not doing a sofft drink taste test, but waiting for a good question to come out of the audience of media types during the World Bowl.
Ray Anderson, the NFL's Senior Vice President Of Football Operations and formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, is seen at the right (white shirt) in this photo from the NFL Holiday Open House eyeing a particularly tasty - looking rum cake.
The other person is "Keenan" who I don't know but works with the person who took the photo. On the other hand I met Ray at the Leigh Steinberg Super Bowl Party in Houston in 2004.
Here's another photo set from the NFL Holiday Open House Party. This just shows the event in full swing. You can see the throng of office workers meeting and greeting each other.
If you've ever wondered what an NFL office party looks like, here you go. This is a holiday party photo I found on Flickr and it features new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell enjoying a little holiday cheer beer with NFL staffers. A bit of a tight fit for all in the cubicle enviroment, but chummy none the less.
The photo shows why Goodell's so well liked. He doesn't place himself above anyone else and treats all with the respect they deserve. He's "one of the guys" without being so much so that his position is compromised.