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Saints barely hold on for first playoff win

A 31-7 deficit proves too much for the late-charging Rams.

The Saints won the NFC West fair and square. But to prove they were the best team in the division, they had to do two things few thought they could.

One, beat the Rams.

Two, break the curse.

So what if they needed a little voodoo hex of their own to make it happen?

New Orleans beat St. Louis 31-28 in the NFC wild-card game Saturday at the Superdome, the first playoff victory in the franchise's fifth appearance in 34 seasons.

The Saints (11-6) play at Minnesota at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

"Right from the get-go, no one gave us a chance," New Orleans safety Darren Perry said. "But this group has a lot of pride, and when someone says we can't do something, we take it personal."

The Saints led 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, then nearly blew it. The defending Super Bowl champions staged a furious rally but fell short when Az-Zahir Hakim inexplicably called for a fair catch of a punt inside the Rams' 10-yard line, then muffed it.

"I thought I looked it all the way in," Hakim said, "but I must have taken my eye off of it at the last second."

New Orleans' Brian Milne recovered at the 8, and the Saints ran out the final 1:43 to bring down the curtain on the "Greatest Show on Earth."

"We just dug ourselves too big a hole," St. Louis coach Mike Martz said. "We tried like crazy at the end and had a shot to win the thing, but came up short."

Six days earlier, St. Louis (10-7) snagged the NFC's final playoff berth with a 26-21 victory at New Orleans, combined with Detroit's upset loss to Chicago. With new life, the Rams vowed to prove they still were the best in the West by winning back-to-back games in the Superdome.

Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who left last week's game with the first concussion of his career, said he felt no ill-affects from the injury. But after taking a 7-0 lead on a 17-yard pass from Warner to Isaac Bruce, the offense lost its rhythm.

"We had a great first drive and then kept stalling," said Warner, who was 24-of-40 for 365 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. "It was a cumulative effort."

While Warner struggled, precocious second-year Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks looked every bit like a playoff-savvy veteran _ reading blitzes, scrambling, hitting receivers in perfect stride and lofting pinpoint fades. Brooks was 16-of-29 for 266 yards and four touchdowns, including three to Willie Jackson.

"People shouldn't be so judgmental," said Brooks, who ran 10 times for 26 yards. "We're trying to go ahead. We can't look back at all the negativity people have for us."

Certainly, no one expected the Saints' Swamp Dawg defense to shut down Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who last week rushed for a career-high 220 yards and three touchdowns. But it happened.

Stymied at the line of scrimmage, Faulk had 24 yards on 14 carries, his longest 4 yards. His only successful run _ a 56-yarder to the Saints' 8 in the second quarter _ was called back by a holding penalty.

"We weren't going to let Marshall Faulk hurt us," Saints linebacker Keith Mitchell said. "We were going to be more aggressive, and if he tried to get outside, force him back in."

The Superdome crowd burst into full party mode when the Saints took a 31-7 lead with 11:57 left. But these are, after all, the Saints, and a defense that dominated the first three quarters suddenly disappeared. Anything that could go wrong did.

"I was a raving maniac," Saints coach Jim Haslett said.

The Rams found their rhythm, scoring three touchdowns in a span of six minutes. Warner threw touchdown passes of 17 yards to Ricky Proehl and 25 yards to Faulk, the latter one play after a 65-yard punt return by Hakim to the New Orleans 9.

St. Louis corner Dre' Bly recovered an onside kick, and Warner pulled the Rams to within a field goal with his 5-yard scramble for a touchdown and conversion pass to Faulk.

"For a second there, I had flashbacks of Buffalo and Houston," Saints safety Perry said, referring to the biggest comeback in playoff history in which the Bills won 41-38 after trailing 35-3.

New Orleans recovered the onside kick, but it appeared the Rams would get one last chance when the Saints failed to make a first down. Officials reviewed a controversial third-and-9 play but ruled Robert Wilson did not have possession of a leaping catch.

Then Hakim let it slip through his hands.

"We didn't think they could stop us," St. Louis receiver Torry Holt said of the Rams' lost possession. "I think we would have moved the ball and won the game."

That's what everyone thought, except the Saints.

"Quitting was never an option," Mitchell said. "After we played that well for three-and-a-half quarters, we didn't think about losing."

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