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Jackson catches accolades

Ex-Gator: 6 catches, 142 yards; 3 TD grabs match NFL playoff mark.

Willie Jackson got to the St. Louis 10-yard line and stopped running. He started to sprint again, quickly changed his mind and walked the final 5 yards into the end zone.

Nobody could catch the former Florida receiver on that 49-yard pass play, and nobody did all day.

As New Orleans pranced to new post-season heights, Jackson led the procession, burning the Rams on Saturday for three straight touchdowns in the Saints' 31-28 NFC wild-card win at the Superdome.

Jackson, picked up this season as an unrestricted free agent from the Bengals, had six catches for 142 yards, including a 50-yarder in the second quarter.

He set career highs for yardage and touchdowns in a game, the sort of production New Orleans needed after its leading receiver, Joe Horn, sprained an ankle on the game's third play.

"Those are the kinds of things that I expect of myself," said Jackson, who left Florida for the NFL after the 1992 season. "I know some people are surprised, but I'm not."

It was quite an explosion for Jackson, who wasn't a starter earlier this season. He spent the first eight games as a reserve and was inactive in the Saints' third game against Seattle.

He had 11 catches in those eight games, never more than three in any game.

"When you lose your top receiver and a guy like Willie steps up, you've got to give him all the credit in the world," Saints coach Jim Haslett said.

Jackson finally won the starting job against San Francisco on Nov. 5 and gradually became more involved in the game plan. His best game came against Oakland on Nov. 19 _ four catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns.

But he had shown little of what he did Saturday when he almost single-handedly bounced the defending Super Bowl champions from the post-season. Jackson not only beat Rams defenders with his pass routes, he hurt them with speed and agility after the catch.

For instance, on his 50-yard catch, he caught a 15-yard curl, shook his defender and sprinted 35 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Rams 29-yard line.

"When I catch the ball, I try not to fall down," Jackson said. "I always try to get to the end zone."

He got there plenty, notching three scores in about 12 minutes in the third and fourth quarters.

Running a precise route, he beat cornerback Todd Lyght on a 10-yard slant for a 17-7 lead midway through the third period.

Early in the fourth, he drew single coverage and beat his man on a deep curl. He pulled off a difficult over-the-shoulder catchand ran 28 yards for a 49-yard touchdown and a 24-7 lead.

After the Saints got the ball back on a Kurt Warner fumble on St. Louis' next possession, New Orleans went right back to Jackson. Slipping free on an inside slant, he pushed the Saints to a startling 31-7 lead with his 16-yard touchdown catch.