Not even a loss mattered to Saints

Published 7:31 pm Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Reggie Bush and Drew Brees ran along the edge of the field, exchanging high-fives with fans calling their names. Special teams standout Steve Gleason put his arm around a fan dressed like Elvis and posed for a photo.

The New Orleans Saints had just lost 31-21 to the Carolina Panthers, but it hardly mattered.

Coach Sean Payton had rested the starters for most of Sunday’s game, and the Saints were looking forward to the next chapter in their storybook return to New Orleans — the playoffs.

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“The fans understand the circumstances. We obviously understand the circumstances,” said Gleason, who has played for the Saints since the last time they made the playoffs in the 2000 season. “One of the things that’s good about what we did after the game is that it puts you in that mode of being ready to move on. It’s a whole new season.”

Brees played only one full series and was 4-of-5 for 46 yards. He lesd a scoring drive that ended with Bush’s short touchdown run that put New Orleans up 7-0.

As Brees trotted off the field for good after the first play of the Saints’ second drive, he raised a hand to acknowledge the crowd as the chant “M-V-P” resonated throughout the Louisiana Superdome.

“For these fans and these people, their spirit has been with us the entire time,” Brees said. “Everything they’ve gone through … for us to be able to come back home and give them what they deserve, that feels good for us, and we just want to turn around and say, ’Thank you,’ to them.”

Coming back from complicated offseason throwing shoulder surgery that left his future in doubt, Brees finished the regular season with a career-best 4,418 yards passing and MVP credentials.

His 26 touchdown passes were one short of tying his career regular-season best of 2004.

“For me, after my shoulder injury, a lot of things were up in the air,” said Brees, playing his first season in New Orleans after San Diego let the sixth-year quarterback walk as a free agent. “Not only did I not know where I was going to be playing football, but I didn’t even know, truthfully … if I was going to be able to play football again.”

The Saints “had that confidence in me and that belief in me,” Brees continued. “The reason I’m here is because they had as much confidence in me as I did.”

Payton gave running back Deuce McAllister the day off. Bush played little more than a quarter. On defense, New Orleans rested several starters, including Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith.

New Orleans, which was 3-13 last year, will be the second seed in the NFC playoffs and host a second-round game in two weeks.

Carolina (8-8), the preseason favorite in the NFC south, was out of postseason contention by the time they took the field Sunday.

“You usually get what you deserve in this business and we dug ourselves that hole,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “The difference between 10-6 and 8-8 is two games.”

Yet, with a chance to avoid a losing season and sweep the season series against the NFC South champs, the Panthers kept most of their starters in late into the fourth quarter.