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Saints beat Cardinals, 45-14, to reach NFC title game

NEW ORLEANS - 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 and Bush scored on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run as New Orleans overwhelmed the defending NFC champion Cardinals, 45-14, in their divisional playoff game yesterday.

"We came off a stretch where we had all the advantages of being rested," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "We played with a lot of energy."

One win from the Super Bowl, the Saints will host the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history next weekend when they play the winner of today's game between Dallas and Minnesota.

"There's been a lot of firsts since Sean Payton has been here in the organization, and we want to keep that going," Brees said. "We want to bring this franchise a championship."

Jeremy Shockey caught a touchdown pass in his return from a three-game absence. Devery Henderson and Marques Colston also had TD receptions 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 yielded 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 Kurt Warner often and knocking Arizona's 38-year-old quarterback out of the game briefly when, during Will Smith's interception return, he was blindsided by Bobby McCray's block.

Warner was 17-for-26 for 205 yards but couldn't 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 in the third quarter, with Bush scoring on the second one to make it 45-14.

Bush had 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving and 109 yards on three punt returns. Colston caught six passes for 83 yards.

"We had a plan the whole time," said Brees, who passed for 247 yards. "It was hard for anybody to understand that plan if you're not a member of my team, but we trusted in that plan, that process. We executed throughout the week and it showed in the game."

The victory wound up being so easy for New Orleans that Payton began pulling his regulars early in the fourth quarter and going with basic running plays to chew up the 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 finished the season on a three-game skid, averaging 14.7 points in that stretch. But they 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. They were right.

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