Saints banking on championship experience

The New Orleans Saints are in a position to get to their first Super Bowl, and they are counting on their NFC Championship experience from 2006 to help carry them. Looking back, they see a more mature team now they had three years ago.

As they get ready for their second NFC Championship Game appearance in four years, the Saints know they're a lot more prepared for what they're going to face Sunday.

When they advanced to the NFC title game after the 2006 season, the Saints were a mere 13 months away from on a three-win season. They had a first-year head coach in Sean Payton, a quarterback that was playing in his first title game and a roster full of fresh faces.

On top of that, after winning a divisional playoff game for only the second time in franchise history, the No. 2-seeded Saints had to face the top-seeded Chicago Bears in a frigid Soldier Field. The result was pretty predictable when you added everything up — a 39-14 loss to the Bears.

This Saints' team that will face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday is a lot different.

Many of the core players — especially on offense — have been together for four seasons now. And even though the Saints suffered through 7-9 and 8-8 seasons after making the NFC title game for the first time, they're ready for this one.

As a bonus, they'll be playing in a cozy and noisy Superdome after earning the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a 13-3 record. Put it all together and the Saints are confident they're going to fulfill their dream of reaching Super Bowl XLIV.

"This team is a lot more mature than we were in 2006," said strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita. "Reggie (Bush) was a rookie three years ago. So was Marques Colston, so was Jahri Evans. These guys are four-year vets now. To have that maturity level going into this big game at home is a completely different feeling."

And Fujita said, you never know when you're going to have everything laid out like the Saints have this week.

"To be the one seed like we are right now and to be able to host the NFC Championship Game and have a chance to go to the Super Bowl, you might not have another chance to do this," he said. "So yeah, I'm drawing from that experience four years ago."

NOTES

  • QB Drew Brees was 23 of 32 for 247 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game win against the Arizona Cardinals. Brees, who had a long completion of 44 yards, was not sacked and finished with a passer rating of 125.4.

  • RB Pierre Thomas came back from three cracked ribs to start, and he was effective with 52 rushing yards and a 4.0 average on 13 carries with a long of 9 yards. He also caught four passes for 18 yards.

  • TE Jeremy Shockey, who missed the final three regular-season games with a toe injury, had three catches for 36 yards and a 17-yard touchdown grab. Shockey limped off the field a couple of times and did not play much in the second half.

  • WR Marques Colston led the Saints in receptions (six) and receiving yards (83) with a long gain of 26 yards. He also had a 2-yard touchdown catch that gave the Saints a 35-14 lead just before halftime.

  • WR Devery Henderson had 80 yards on four receptions with a 44-yard touchdown catch on a flea-flicker pass from Brees.

  • LCB Randall Gay finished with a team-high seven solo tackles and forced a fumble on the Cardinals' second possession which the Saints' offense turned into a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

  • RDE Will Smith dropped into coverage and had an interception and also recorded a quarterback hurry and two passes defensed against the Cardinals.

  • FS Darren Sharper had only two tackles, but he was active with a pass breakup in the end zone and he also recovered the fumble that Gay caused.

  • RB Reggie Bush had a huge game with 108 yards from scrimmage on nine touches with 84 rushing yards on five carries with a 46-yard TD in the first quarter. He also caught four passes for 24 yards and added 109 yards on three punt returns — including an 83-yard TD — to finish with 217 all-purpose yards.

  • P Thomas Morstead punted four times for a 42.8 average with a long of 66 yards and wound up with a net average of 37.8. He also kicked off eight times and sent seven into the end zone with three going for touchbacks.


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