Saints down Cardinals 31-24, now on hunt for wild card

Published 8:53 pm Tuesday, December 18, 2007

No Reggie? No Deuce?

No sweat for Drew Brees, whose decisions and accuracy are turning role players into menacing threats at a crucial juncture in the season for the New Orleans Saints.

Brees connected on 86.7 percent of his throws for 315 yards and two touchdowns, keeping the Saints’ playoff hopes alive in a 31-24 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

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“We’re really getting the best out of ourselves right now,” said Brees, who completed 26 of 30 passes to three receivers, a tight end and three running backs. “This is the time to come together.”

With a loss severely hurting playoff hopes for either team, the game was a high-anxiety affair. Played indoors, it was no less sloppy than some of the weather-affected contests far to the north.

Fumbles by each team set up opponents’ scores. Roman Harper’s interception of Kurt Warner’s tipped pass set up another Saints touchdown.

The victory guaranteed New Orleans (7-7) would remain no worse than one game out of the wild-card race behind Minnesota (7-6), which plays Monday night against Chicago. Arizona (6-8), meanwhile, has little hope of a postseason berth after its second loss in a row.

“It was just too many mistakes for us today,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I really believe that we are on the right track. We’re getting players in the right situations (but) we’re not making those plays. … Maybe we could use a little more confidence.”

New Orleans is increasingly confident after winning two straight without Deuce McAllister, who went out for the season in Week 3, or Reggie Bush, who missed his second game of the season with a partially torn left knee ligament.

In the absence of the two star running backs, Aaron Stecker has stepped in effectively while seventh-round draft pick Marques Colston continues to develop into one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers in only his second season.

“Anytime Drew is playing well, this offense is able to do a lot of things,” Colston said. “Just having him come out in the rhythm he was in and how hot he was definitely led to a lot of big plays.”

One week after becoming the first Saints player to rush for 100 yards this season, Stecker finished with 95 yards rushing and two touchdowns to go with 46 yards receiving against Arizona.

Colston caught a 19-yard touchdown as part of an eight-catch, 114-yard performance that put him over the 1,000-yard receiving mark in each of his first two seasons. Many of his catches demonstrated his ability to use body position and long reach to prevent defenders from breaking up throws in tight coverage.

“You see him each week make contested catches,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He has strong hands in tight quarters. Those are good characteristics to have for a young player.”

Even guys like reserve tight end Billy Miller are giving opponents fits.

Miller caught Brees’ 22-yard third-down pass that allowed the Saints to safely run out the final few minutes.

Brees’ prettiest touchdown pass was his rainbow 32-yarder to 11-year veteran David Patten, which gave the Saints a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.

Warner, who fumbled and was intercepted and was sacked twice, alternated between his worst and best. He completed six of seven throws on an 80-yard scoring drive in the third quarter that pulled Arizona to 28-21. The 3-yard touchdown toss was among his best, as he alertly dumped the ball straight ahead to tight end Ben Patrick just before getting crushed in a collapsing pocket.

Warner finished 19-of-30 for 233 yards and three TDs. Warner took advantage of Anquan Boldin’s return from a dislocated toe, hitting the receiver six times for 83 yards.

Warner’s first touchdown went to tight end Troy Bienemann on fourth-and-goal from the 1. He also hit Larry Fitzgerald for an 18-yard score.

“We’ve lost a lot of games we should have won this year,” Warner said. “The No. 1 thing we cannot allow ourselves to do is go backward. We can all sit around and say we’re out of the playoffs … The bottom line is, if we are going to be a playoff team we are going to have to find a way to win.”

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wouldn’t let his team go down without a fight. He called a fake punt on fourth-and-7 from the Arizona 25, and Sean Morey ran 13 yards to extend the drive. Arizona ended up with Neil Rackers’ 26-yard field goal to move to 31-24 with 9:11 left in the game.

Brees hit Patten across midfield for a long gain, but Patten, carrying the ball in one hand, fumbled at the Cardinals 43. When Arizona stalled near midfield with about six minutes remaining, the Cardinals’ punt was downed at the New Orleans 4.

But Brees hit Miller and Colston for consecutive first downs, then Stecker ran for two short gains, setting up Brees final backbreaking completion to Miller.