McCallister leads Saints past Eagles


NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Deuce McAllister delivered on the promise his more-celebrated running mate made before this season, carrying the New Orleans Saints where they’ve never been before – one game from the Super Bowl.

McAllister and rookie sensation Reggie Bush led the Saints past the Philadelphia Eagles 27-24 Saturday and into the NFC championship game, a reversal of fortune for the team and the city. To constant chants of “DEUCE!” or “REG-GIE! REG-GIE!” the Saints rallied with an assortment of big plays that even featured backup tight end Billy Miller, a rarely used target. But 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.

All season, the Saints have been at the heart of New Orleans’ revival from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Now, the franchise best known for four decades of failure, for the ‘Aints and fans wearing paper bags, will either play at Chicago or host Seattle, depending on the outcome of today’s game.

“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.”

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.

Who needs Mardi Gras when you have a Super Bowl contender?

Even after Drew 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, who 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.

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.

AP-ES-01-13-07 2356EST