By Derek Lofland.
Unlike my Winners / Losers Articles from the Regular Season, I am going to give my impressions of all eight teams from the four divisional round games this weekend. I will present the recaps in the order the games were played.
So much for another record shootout. The Saints held up their end of the bargain by scoring 35 first half points and cruising to a 45-14 third quarter advantage that ended up being the final score. It was certainly a shootout, but only one team remembered to load their guns.
QB Drew Brees went 23 for 32 with 247 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. The other star was RB Reggie Bush, who had 84 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving, 109 yards in punt returns and scored on a 46-yard run and 83-yard punt return.
The defense also did a great job of stopping the Cardinals offense. After allowing a 70-yard touchdown run to Cardinals RB Tim Hightower, they gave up only 31 yards rushing the rest of the game. The Saints held QB Kurt Warner to 17 attempts in 26 completions for 205 yards and no touchdowns with one pick. That snapped Warner’s streak of 12 consecutive playoff games with a touchdown pass.
WR Larry Fitzgerald was held to six receptions for 77 yards and no touchdowns. That snapped a five-game touchdown streak for Fitzgerald. They also forced a fumble by WR Early Docket. Those two turnovers resulted in 14 points for the Saints and were a big reason the Cardinals found themselves down 35-14 at the half. The margin for error was small, and the Cardinals could not overcome their mistakes.
This looked like the Saints team that started 13-0. They were efficient in the air, were able to pound the ball on the ground and forced timely turnovers. The Saints were explosive. If this team shows up in the NFC Championship, the Minnesota Vikings will have their work cut out for them. The crowd is going to be loud and wanting to see a Saints victory.
The Saints' only other NFC Championship Game appearance was 2006 in Chicago, and this team has never hosted a NFC Championship or appeared in a Super Bowl. This franchise is hungry for a Super Bowl, and the fans can taste it. The Superdome will be rocking this Sunday.
As for the Arizona Cardinals, it is a disappointing but mostly successful season. Last year the Cardinals were the surprise of the NFL. They followed that up with a second consecutive division title and an impressive 51-45 OT playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. The only times the Cardinals went to back-to-back playoff games was 1974 and 1975, when they were in St. Louis, and 1947 and 1948, when they were in Chicago.
This is a franchise that is starving for relevancy, and they found that this year by following up last year’s Super Bowl runner-up season with another good season. This cannot be considered the same old Cardinals anymore; the culture has changed, and the Cardinals expect to win every year.
That said, this team was so inconsistent. They beat the New York Giants 24-17 in New York only to lose 34-21 to Carolina, thank to five interceptions by Warner. They beat the Minnesota Vikings this year 31-10 and followed that up with a 24-9 loss in San Francisco where they turned the ball over seven times. They beat the Packers 51-45 and Warner had more touchdown passes (5) than incompletions (4). They followed that up with a 45-14 loss to the Saints. This team struggled to put together back-to-back performances against good teams this year.
This team is at a crossroads, as Warner is 38 going on 39 and may decide to retire. I said the culture changed, but no one is more responsible for that than Warner, and the Cardinals need him if they are going to win the division in 2010. They do not have another quarterback that appears to be viable on their roster; backup QB Matt Leinart has proved inadequate. This team has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball but has some question marks heading into the offseason and needs to improve its consistency.
It will be interesting to see if they can win the division for a third straight year or if the surging San Francisco 49ers can take the title away from them in 2010. They need Warner back to have a realistic shot at the division, but you wonder how much he has left in the tank at this stage of his NFL career and whether he is willing to play another season. Other than Warner, no one knows how those concussions are affecting him...