Reporting from New Orleans — New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton carefully avoided superlatives, even as his team chased perfection in bolting to a 13-0 record.
As the New England Patriots learned two years ago, it's not about pursuing 19-0, it's about pursuing victory in the final game. Maybe when this season is over, a three-game skid to end the regular season, including home losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will turn out to be the springboard the Saints needed for the playoffs. Momentum can be a fleeting thing, but the Saints grabbed firm control of it Saturday with a 45-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
A city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina nearly 4 1/2 years ago will play host the NFC championship game in the Superdome, which once was home to displaced residents.. A franchise that never has reached the Super Bowl is one victory from doing so Feb. 7 in Miami.
Afterward, Payton, whose team hadn't played a meaningful game in three weeks, downplayed the victory over the defending NFC champions.
"I thought in all three phases we played a real good game," Payton said. "We came off a stretch where we had all the advantages of being rested. We played with a lot of energy."
Drew Brees completed 23 of 32 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey, connected with Devery Henderson on a 44-yard touchdown pass off a flea-flicker and hit Marques Colston for a two-yard touchdown before halftime to put the Saints ahead, 35-14, against a defense that lost cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a knee injury and free safety Antrel Rolle to a concussion.
"We were tired of the questions [about the layoff]," Brees said. "We wanted to get it going. 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."
There will be speculation about whether this was the final game for 38-year-old quarterback Kurt Warner, who led the Cardinals to this point. He was sidelined briefly because of a rib injury when Saints end Bobby McCray blindsided him as he tried to make a play on Will Smith after an interception.
"A big hit like that makes you think twice about playing this game," Warner said with a laugh. "I have a lot of ideas in my head, but what I need to do is get away from the season and talk it over with my wife. As I've told you a million times before, [retirement] is something I will think about and answer later. I don't think it will be a long and drawn-out process."
Reggie Bush scored on a 46-yard run in the first quarter as the Saints took a 21-7 lead after Arizona's Tim Hightower had a 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. It was the longest run in postseason history for the Saints, and Bush later scored on an 83-yard punt return.
If the Cowboys win today at Minnesota, it will set up a rematch of the Week 15 meeting, when the Cowboys beat the Saints, 24-17, at the Superdome. It was the first loss of the season for New Orleans.