Saints stay alive barely

Published 8:53 pm Monday, December 24, 2007

Running, throwing, and sometimes throwing on the run, McNabb accounted for 300 total yards and tossed three touchdown passes, leading the Philadelphia Eagles to a 38-23 victory Sunday that dealt a devastating blow to a New Orleans squad still clinging to playoff hopes, however with the Minnesota Vikings’ loss Sunday night the New Orleans Saints still have a chance to make the playoffs.

“A lot of people ask a lot of questions about Donovan,” said Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, who gained 100 yards on 17 carries. “I’ve said all along, it’s going to take a full year for him to recover and be totally back. You see the way he’s running the ball down the field. He’s rounding back into being his old self and these last two weeks are proof of that.”

The Eagles (7-8) have won two straight, building on their upset of the Cowboys in Dallas a week earlier. Their triumph snapped a two-game winning streak for the Saints (7-8).

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McNabb, whose 263 yards passing gave him more than 25,000 for his career, no longer showed the effects of his rehabilitation from knee surgery over the summer or an ankle sprain in midseason.

His 40-yard scramble on the third play led to a bizarre touchdown after his fumble was recovered in the end zone by receiver Kevin Curtis. McNabb also used his scrambling ability to neutralize the Saints’ pass rush and give his receivers more time to get open.

“I think teams now see the progression of me coming off the injury and seeing I’m getting my mobility back,” McNabb said. “I’m definitely feeling better and being able to get opportunities for guys by holding the ball a little bit longer.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 289 yards and a touchdown, but lost his best receiver when Marques Colston left the game in the first half with a chest contusion that had him spitting up blood.

Still, the Saints were in position to tie the game at 21 on the opening drive of the second half when David Patten nearly scored on a short first-down pass.

Coach Sean Payton thought Patten had crossed the goal line and challenged the ruling, but the call was upheld, setting up second-and-goal from the 1. The Eagles stuffed New Orleans on three straight running plays to preserve their one-touchdown lead, taking over possession at their own 2.

The running plays seemed like a departure for Payton, who calls a majority of passing plays and never shies away from trickery. Payton said he didn’t want to “get cute,” and Brees agreed.

“Second and goal from the 4-inch line? You should be able to put that one in. We had pounded in there two other times previously and why not again right there?” Brees said. “That was a huge turning point in the game. We score there, we tie it up, and I think it would have been a different ballgame.”

Instead, Philadelphia followed with a 15-play, 98-yard, seven-minute scoring drive that McNabb capped with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis, giving the Eagles a 31-17 lead late in the third quarter.

McNabb also had touchdown passes of 31 yards to Reggie Brown and 7 yards to Curtis. Correll Buckhalter scored the Eagles’ other touchdown on a 20-yard run in the first quarter.

Curtis had six catches for 78 yards, while Brown caught six passes for 73 yards.

Aaron Stecker scored both New Orleans touchdowns on short runs in the first half.

Both teams entered the game with highly ranked run defenses. The Eagles came in fifth in the league, giving up an average of 94.6 yards rushing, and the Saints came in eighth (97.6).

Philadelphia finished with 184 rushing yards, while New Orleans managed only 65, with Stecker gaining 49.

Still, the Saints drove inside Philadelphia’s 30 twice in the fourth quarter. Touchdowns on those possessions could have tied the game, but the Eagles forced Martin Gramatica’s field goals of 35 and 46 yards, leaving New Orleans down 31-23 with 7:19 left.

Philadelphia needed one more scoring drive to put the game away. Buckhalter’s 34-yard kickoff return gave the Eagles the ball at the New Orleans 44. McNabb got them inside the 20 with a 26-yard pass down the sideline to Curtis, then used a short pass to Westbrook to convert on third-and-2. Three plays later, McNabb found Curtis again for the score, which sent fans streaming for the exits with 2:33 to go.

“He looked great today,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said of McNabb. “He ran strong. … He played his heart out both running and throwing the ball. He had great command of the huddle.”

Notes: Saints CB Mike McKenzie left the game with a sprained right knee after he narrowly missed recovering McNabb’s fumble on the Eagles’ first TD of the game. … Eagles S Brian Dawkins left the game with what team officials termed a right foot injury. He’s scheduled for an MRI on Monday. … Eagles LB Omar Gaither left the game with a quad contusion. … Saints reserve running back Jamaal Branch broke his leg on a special teams play.