NFL

Saints say their confidence was never shaken

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

With nine double-digit victories during the regular season, the New Orleans Saints weren't all that surprised by the way they dominated their playoff opener.

``I don't think anyone in this locker room ever lost confidence in what we were capable of doing,'' Saints receiver Marques Colston said. ``You don't just win 13 games in this league by accident. So we knew the formula and it was just a matter of putting it together for 60 minutes.''

Colston and his teammates gathered at the Saints' suburban New Orleans training center on Sunday to review their 45-14 rout of the Arizona Cardinals in Saturday's divisional playoff game. Colston had six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, helping the Saints (14-3) score more points than in their previous three games combined.

Coach Sean Payton intends to let his players rest on Monday and Tuesday. Practice will resume Wednesday as the Saints, who've never been to a Super Bowl, prepare to host the Minnesota Vikings (13-4) in the first NFC championship game held in New Orleans next Sunday evening.

``There have been some lean years for the Saints. I've been a part of a few of them,'' Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. ``To be able to be here when I think something special is going on, it's quite an honor.''

Although the Saints finished as the top seed in the NFC, losses to Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina in their last three regular-season games left them looking tired and vulnerable. When they returned to action, rested and healthy after their first-round bye, they were eager to silence their critics.

``We pretty much had our fill of hearing of stumbling into the playoffs,'' said Stinchcomb, who helped keep the Cardinals from sacking Brees.

With good protection, Brees completed 23 of 32 passes for 247 yards and three scores, including a 17-yard touchdown to tight end Jeremy Shockey and a 44-yard score on a flea flicker to Devery Henderson. The Saints had balance in their offense with 171 yards rushing on 34 carries.

If the Saints looked confident in everything they did, it's because they were, Brees said.

``We all see the team that won 13 games in a row, not the team that struggled against the Cowboys and let one get away from us against Tampa,'' Brees said.

Reggie Bush played his best game of the season. He had 108 yards from scrimmage, including a dazzling 46-yard touchdown run, and 109 yards on three punt returns, highlighted by his 83-yard TD return. During the regular season, Bush had averaged only 4.8 yards on punt returns, with a long of 23 yards.

``What makes this team so good is that there's balance and not only balance in run and pass, but balance in who we can count on to make big plays,'' Stinchcomb said. ``If a defense tries to focus on just one or two guys, there's too many weapons for that.''

New Orleans' defense also looked rejuvenated. After sliding to 25th in the NFL in yards allowed (358.7 per game) during the regular season, the unit appeared to be a weakness. Cornerback Jabari Greer recalled hearing predictions of a high-scoring game with Arizona.

``Any time you're challenged as a professional, especially in this game, you want to rise up and answer,'' Greer said.

Although Arizona scored on a 70-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, the Saints also forced two turnovers, had a sack and made seven third-down stops, as well as one on fourth down.

The Saints kept the pressure on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, holding him to 205 yards passing and no touchdowns.

After shutting down the 38-year-old Warner, the Saints will try to do the same to 40-year-old Brett Favre, who led the Vikings to a 34-3 rout of the Cowboys on Sunday.

``Any time you can play against a player of his caliber, you want to raise your game,'' Greer said. ``It will be fun.''

The Vikings have ``shown that they can score. They've shown they can run the ball. They have great coaching. They showed they can win,'' Greer added. ``If we don't rise to the occasion, as much as everybody says it's a magical season, it'll be over just like that.''

Tagged: Vikings, Saints, Panthers, Cardinals, Jon Stinchcomb, Jabari Greer, Marques Colston

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