NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Maybe a little rest was all Drew Brees and Reggie Bush needed to shift the Saints’ league-leading offense back into overdrive.
That, and a visit from Arizona’s porous defense.
Brees threw three touchdown passes, Bush scored on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run, and New Orleans overwhelmed the defending NFC champion Cardinals 45-14 on Saturday.
One win from the Super Bowl, New Orleans will host an NFC title game for the first time in franchise history next weekend. The Saints will play the winner of Sunday’s game between Dallas and Minnesota.
Jeremy Shockey caught a touchdown pass in his return from a three-game absence. Devery Henderson and Marques Colston also had touchdown catches, and Lynell Hamilton had a short touchdown run for the Saints.
Coming off its 51-45 overtime win over Green Bay in the wild-card round, Arizona wound up yielding 90 points in the postseason, the most ever allowed in consecutive playoff games in one season.
Even the Saints’ sometimes soft defense played well, forcing two turnovers, harassing Warner often and knocking Arizona’s 38-year-old quarterback out of the game briefly when, during Will Smith’s interception return, he was blind-sided by Bobby McCray’s block.
Warner was 17 of 26 for 205 yards, but was unable to move Arizona consistently. The Cardinals punted twice and missed a long field goal in the first half before heading into halftime down 35-14. Arizona punted twice more in the third quarter, with Bush scoring on the second to make it 45-14.
Bush finished with 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving and 109 yards on three punt returns. Colston caught six passes for 83 yards.
The victory wound up being so easy for New Orleans that coach Sean Payton began pulling his regulars early in the fourth quarter and going with basic run plays to chew up clock. It was more like what Saints fans had gotten used to in the first 12 weeks of the season, when New Orleans was blowing out opponents en route to a 13-0 start.
The Saints then finished the season on a three-game skid, averaging 14.7 points during that stretch. But New Orleans finished as the NFC’s top seed anyway, and players said after their bye week that they’d return healthy and in early season form.
Looking to inspire the club, Payton on Friday signed fan favorite Deuce McAllister, who was inactive but led the team out onto the field before the game alongside Bush, who was wielding a black baseball bat.
It didn’t appear as though the Saints would be delivering a beating when the game started, though.
Arizona took the opening kickoff, and with the Superdome crowd howling madly to fire up the defense, Tim Hightower burst through a huge hole on the first play from scrimmage, cut back left and stunned the crowd into silence with a 70-yard TD run. It was the fourth rushing touchdown of 66 yards or more given up by New Orleans this season.
The good news for the Saints was they had 59:41 left to make up for it. They needed one series to tie it, with Hamilton’s 1-yard run capping a more methodical 10-play, 72-yard drive.
On Arizona’s next possession, Warner hit Jerheme Urban cutting across the middle, but Randall Gay stripped him from behind and the ball bounced right to Darren Sharper, who returned it to the Cardinals 37. That led to Brees’ 17-yard scoring strike to Shockey, who hopped as if the right foot injury that kept him out of the last three regular-season games was bothering him.
New Orleans was off the races, scoring its third TD in 6:46 when Bush ran left, stopped, started again, danced away from two defenders who fell on each other missing him, then rocketed into the open field for his 46-yard TD.
Arizona needed a break to get back in the game and got one when what would have been Sharper’s 10th interception this season was wiped out by linebacker Scott Shanle’s hand to the face penalty on Warner. The Cardinals cashed in, capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive with Chris “Beanie” Wells’ 4-yard TD run to make it 21-14.
The Saints went back up by two TDs when Brees hit Henderson on a flea flicker for a 44-yard score. Although Arizona was without starting defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (left knee) and Antrel Rolle (head) by then, Henderson got behind starter Bryant McFadden and made a twisting catch as he fell into the end zone.
Colston’s 2-yard touchdown catch made it 35-14 at halftime.