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TallySaint 12-26-2006 07:07 AM

Good Bye: Saints Get Week Off
The Eagles' win against the Cowboys is a Christmas present for N.O.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

By Michael J. Montalbano, Times-Picayune

The gifts keep on coming.

In a season in which the Saints picked up free-agent quarterback Drew Brees during the offseason and were able to secure Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush in the draft, New Orleans received a late Christmas present Monday night when the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Philadelphia Eagles 23-7 in Irving, Texas.

With the loss, the Cowboys, at 9-6, waved goodbye to any chance of getting the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC, and for the first time in franchise history, the Saints, 10-5, secured the second seed.

New Orleans, which will close out the regular season against the Carolina Panthers, who are 7-8, on Sunday at the Superdome, gained a first-round bye and will host a divisional playoff game Jan. 13 or 14.

Only eight teams have reached the Super Bowl without the help of a first-round bye since the wild-card round was added to the playoffs in 1978.

The last time the Saints made the playoffs was after the 2000 season. The Minnesota Vikings ousted the Saints 34-16 in a divisional playoff game Jan. 6, 2001, at the Metrodome, a week after New Orleans won the only playoff game in franchise history: 31-28 over the St. Louis Rams at the Superdome.

The Saints have qualified for the postseason six times.

In a magical season that has lifted the spirits of a region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the Saints, who were 3-13 and didn't play a regular-season game at the Superdome last year, continue to overcome the odds.

Having lost to the Washington Redskins 16-10 on Dec. 17 at the Superdome, the Saints, under the direction of first-year coach Sean Payton, righted themselves by defeating the New York Giants 30-7 on Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J. New Orleans performed the way it did against Dallas when it raced past the host Cowboys 42-17 on Dec. 10 before a national television audience.

With sellouts now the norm at the Superdome and rookie wide receiver Marques Colston also making an immediate impact, Saints fans have caught playoff fever.

The real fun is just beginning.

Chicago holds the No. 1 spot in the NFC, with the Bears hosting the championship game if they advance that far. If Chicago falters -- and the Saints win their divisional playoff game -- New Orleans then would host the NFC championship game.

The regular season ends Sunday, with the playoffs beginning Jan. 6. Super Bowl XLI is Feb. 4 in Miami.


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