NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The Saints’ triumphant return to New Orleans now includes the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2000 – not that they’re in any mood to celebrate.

New Orleans made the playoffs by default Sunday, losing 16-10 to the Washington Redskins while the Saints’ only remaining pursuer in the NFC South, Carolina, was eliminated from the division race by a loss to Pittsburgh.

The Redskins played more like a team looking to quiet harsh criticism than a unit already out of contention for the postseason, punishing the Saints’ defense with a running attack that racked up 161 yards.

Coming off a career-high 171 yards a week earlier, Ladell Betts gained 119 on 22 carriers, while blossoming quarterback Jason Campbell outplayed Drew Brees.

Campbell threw for 204 yards and a 31-yard touchdown to Santana Moss, and Shaun Suisham kicked two field goals of 37 yards and another of 22 to keep New Orleans at arm’s length.

Betts also had 43 yards receiving on three catches, while Chris Cooley was Campell’s favorite target, with 80 yards on four receptions.

Brees, who has played his way to MVP contention by leading the league in yards passing, took too much time to get going, hurt by dropped passes at times. He also threw a costly interception in the fourth quarter and finished 21-of-38 for 207 yards. He was hurried on many plays, sacked twice and he did not throw a touchdown pass.

The Redskins’ defense also neutralized Reggie Bush, holding him to only 14 yards rushing and 19 yards receiving. Deuce McAllister scored the Saints’ lone touchdown, but finished with only 48 yards rushing.

Despite playing poorly, New Orleans was in the game until the end. Bush’s 15-yard gain on a screen gave the Saints a first down on Washington’s 19 inside the last two minutes. But New Orleans got no further and the drive stalled when Brees’ fourth-down pass for Devery Henderson in the end zone fell incomplete.

Washington dominated early but led only 13-7 at halftime because of the same type of untimely mistakes that have plagued the Redskins all season.

On Washington’s opening drive, Campbell fumbled a snap on a third-and-1 from the New Orleans 14. He recovered, but coach Joe Gibbs settled for Suisham’s 37-yard field goal.

Later, two straight false starts squandered a second-and-2 at the New Orleans 11, leading to another Suisham field goal.

And with New Orleans punting from its own end zone without a minute to go before halftime, Antwaan Randle El couldn’t track down a short, line-drive punt that bounced around the Saints’ 40 and rolled to the Redskins’ 40. With no timeouts left, Washington failed to get into field goal range before the clock ran out.

When the Redskins were error-free, they were ruthlessly efficient, going 80 yards in only four plays for their first touchdown and a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

Cooley set up the score by turning a short pass over the middle into a 44-yard gain to the Saints’ 31. On the next snap, Campbell went deep down the middle to Moss, who split defenders Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas and caught the ball in the back of the end zone.

New Orleans had only one solid drive in the first half and it led to a touchdown.

McAllister’s 20-yard gain on a third-down screen pass put New Orleans at the 4. Then McAllister scored two plays later from the 1.

Both teams’ offenses were anemic for most of the third quarter. The Saints managed one drive inside the Redskins’ 30, which resulted in John Carney’s 41-yard field goal that cut Washington’s advantage to 13-10 early in the fourth quarter.

AP-ES-12-17-06 1623EST


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