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Saints put a hurtin' on the Cards

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NEW ORLEANS – As the New Orleans Saints gathered Friday night for their final meeting before facing the Arizona Cardinals, Marques Colston(notes) knew what was coming. A Bill Parcells disciple, Saints coach Sean Payton had a way of cutting through tension and calming nerves frayed by anticipation. When the doubts of the outside world were ringing in their ears, Payton could always find the mute button.

And that's what he did Friday night, pulling out the baseball bat.

"We call these our 'bat' games," Colston said. "This is the fourth or the fifth one that we've had since I've been here. It's one of those times where you feel like you have to be the most physical team. When he pulls that bat out, you know everyone is going to be on the same page."

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Reggie Bush brought Sean Payton's motivational bat onto the field during pregame introductions.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

There was no denying that against the Cardinals, who took arguably their most thorough whipping of the season Saturday, suffering a 45-14 embarrassment that left them looking physically and mentally broken. In turn, New Orleans returned to the offensive style we saw the first three months of the season – decisive, versatile and with a potent taste for the jugular that it seemed to lack in December. An attack that was an homage to Payton's bat, a Parcells-ian machination meant to stand as a symbol for toughness and resolve.

Every Saints player was given one bat, with each inscribed with the date of Saturday's game and a note: "Bring the Wood." It was a message running back Reggie Bush(notes) took literally, actually bringing the bat onto the Louisiana Superdome field when he came out for pre-game introductions.

"It represented to me who we are and who we were gonna be all day today," Bush said. "…He didn't know I was going to bring it out. That was kind of on my own. When I brought it out, our kickoff team was starting the game off and he was telling me, 'Go put the bat down now.' "

Not that the Saints would have needed it. After allowing a 70-yard touchdown run by Cardinals running back Tim Hightower(notes) on the game's first play from scrimmage, New Orleans responded with a barrage of its own, scoring three touchdowns on its first three possessions and effectively dominating Arizona to the finish.

And one needed to only look at the Cardinals' sideline to see which team imposed its physical will. Arizona cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) and defensive tackle Gabe Watson(notes) sustained knee injuries and missed much of the game; safety Antrel Rolle(notes) left with a head injury; and even Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) was sidelined for a short period after taking a devastating hit from Saints defensive end Bobby McCray(notes) during an interception return.

From a larger perspective, the win represented all that has been right for the Saints this season, including an array of scoring that included a dynamic 46-yard touchdown run by Bush, a 2-yard fade to Marques Colston, a 17-yard catch-and-run by tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) and a second touchdown by Bush on an electric 83-yard punt return. New Orleans even managed to get little-used fourth-string running back Lynell Hamilton(notes) into the end zone.

It was a performance that has to strike some fear into the heart of whatever NFC opponent the Saints will face in the conference championship. Not only did a Saints offense that sputtered down the stretch come back to life, but a defense that had lost some of its sting held the Cardinals to only 14 points one week after Arizona dropped 51 on the Green Bay Packers. And defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did it by blitzing generously, mixing coverages and bracketing the Cardinals' bread-and-butter player, Larry Fitzgerald(notes). Taking away Hightower's 70-yard touchdown run on the game's first play, the Cardinals had only 289 yards of total offense the rest of the way.

"Coach Williams really had a great game plan defensively," Fitzgerald said. "We knew by watching them on film that they change things up a lot. You have to tip your hat off to them."

Conversely, the Saints' offense rarely felt pressured, playing in high-tempo spread sets and finding ample seams in an Arizona defense that was eventually down three starters and had already been abused one week before by the Packers. Pass-rushing pressure was non-existent, as Brees wasn't sacked and rarely forced to move around in the pocket.

Even Bush, who has so often been maligned for being soft and too prone to dancing at the line of scrimmage, appeared to run as hard as he has since he entered the NFL, finishing with 108 yards from scrimmage to go with his pair of touchdowns. He bounced off tacklers on a handful of occasions, including the 46-yard score, which saw him spin through trash at the line of scrimmage, bounce off one defender, elude another and cut into the open field – moves that belied his supposedly shaky knee, which caused him to miss eight games over the last two seasons.

"Coming off the knee injury I had last year, you're never really fully yourself until about a year [later]," Bush said. "It's been a while since I felt this rested and this good."

And it's been a while since the Saints looked this complete and dangerous. Now the lingering questions about a three-game losing streak have been put to bed in resounding fashion. So much so that Payton's first words after Saturday's game spelled out the death knell for those predicting a one-and-done playoff journey for New Orleans: "So much for the rust."

The Saints are back and worthy of being feared again. And when they take the field in next week's NFC Championship Game, they won't need to bring the baseball bat to prove their point.