The New Orleans Saints’ offense hasn’t been clicking lately, but one look at the Arizona Cardinals’ porous defense from wild-card weekend has to have them feeling good about their chances of rediscovering their prolific passing game.
To keep up with Arizona’s air attack, they probably have to.
Kurt Warner(notes) and the Cardinals won the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history last week to punch a ticket to the Superdome for Saturday’s divisional showdown, and points should again be plentiful as Drew Brees(notes) and the Saints look to shake their late-season rust.
The defending NFC champions were underdogs in their own building going into their wild-card contest against Green Bay on Sunday, but the absence of Anquan Boldin(notes) didn’t slow Warner and the Cardinals (11-6) against the conference’s hottest team.
Warner staked Arizona to leads of 17-0 and 31-10 before the Packers rallied, exploding for 35 points over the final quarter and a half to force overtime after the Cardinals’ Neil Rackers(notes) blew a last-second, 34-yard field goal.
Though Warner threw for 379 yards and more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four), it was Arizona’s defense that allowed it to escape. Karlos Dansby(notes) returned Aaron Rodgers’(notes) deflected fumble 17 yards for a touchdown on the third play of overtime to give the Cardinals a 51-45 victory.
“We knew how tough it was going to be on our defense with all the weapons they have offensively and how they’ve been playing,” Warner said. “It was just one of those games where I felt great. I loved our playing. I felt like I was seeing everything well and it accumulates to 51 points.”
Warner, 9-3 in the playoffs, hit Steve Breaston(notes) seven times for 125 yards and threw two touchdowns apiece to Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and Early Doucet(notes), but spent time after the game fighting off rumors of his possible retirement.
“I don’t think you ever want to stay too long, but you never want to go out before it’s time,” he said. “The hard part is trying to figure that out, but right now it’s about another playoff game. It’s about New Orleans and then we’ll go from there.”
The Saints (13-3) didn’t put up 51 points this season, but scored 45 or more four times in the first six weeks and at least 35 three more times in starting 13-0.
With Brees being mentioned as an MVP front-runner and a perfect regular season in sight, though, New Orleans faded down the stretch. The offense was held to 17 points in home losses to Dallas and Tampa Bay, and with the NFC’s top seed locked up, Brees and the starters rested in a 23-10 loss at Carolina in Week 17.
The Saints have had the NFL’s No. 1 total offense in three of the four seasons since the arrival of Brees and coach Sean Payton, but have just one playoff win.
“We know how to play at a high level offensively,” Brees said. “The opportunity to get guys healthy - that was huge. We’ve been banged up at times throughout the season.”
Tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) (toe), receiver Lance Moore(notes) (ankle) and leading rusher Pierre Thomas(notes) (ribs) were all hampered by injuries down the stretch, but each is expected to play Sunday.
Facing an Arizona defense that gave up 500 yards on two occasions this season and let the Packers rack up 403 through the air would seem to have Brees salivating, not that the four-time Pro Bowler would admit it.
“Everybody thinks this is going to be an offensive shootout,” Brees said. “Obviously, I hope that we score a lot of points, but in the end, you have two defenses that play with a lot of confidence and play with a lot of pride, and I’m sure that they would have something to say about this.”
Boldin, who hurt his left ankle and knee in the regular-season finale against Green Bay, says he feels much better this week after sitting out the wild-card game and is optimistic he’ll play.
Whether Hayes plays or not, the Cardinals’ defense has plenty to work on.
“It’s hard to say anything positive when you give up as many yards as we did on defense, not just the cornerbacks, but everybody,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “It goes back to doing a better job of tackling.”
With Arizona’s defense already tired and having only five days to rest, rookie running back Beanie Wells(notes) may play a bigger role against a Saints defense that allowed an average of 166.3 yards on the ground over the last three weeks.
Wells had 91 yards on 14 carries Sunday, and the Cardinals are 7-1 when he rushes for more than 50 yards.
This is the first postseason meeting between Arizona and New Orleans. The teams last met Dec. 16, 2007, at the Superdome, with Brees going 26 for 30 for 315 yards and two touchdowns in the Saints’ 31-24 win. Warner threw for 233 yards and three TDs.