NFL: Saints, Eagles play today

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 12, 2007

By Brett Martel

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — One good story has to end here this weekend.

Will it be that of a team that rallied around a backup quarterback who had been all but written off, then saved a season that looked like it was going nowhere?

Or will it be that of a team supposed to finish last, but ended up surprising the league and delighting the victory-starved fans of a region recovering from an epic natural disaster?

The Philadelphia Eagles (11-6) and the New Orleans Saints (10-6) both have had remarkable seasons, and they’ll converge tonight in the Louisiana Superdome, an iconic stadium with its own storied past.

“It’s been a good ride so far. I don’t want it to end,” Saints running back Deuce McAllister said. “So it’s up to us to make plays and not let it end.”

McAllister, whose upbringing in central Mississippi gives him a special bond with fans in the region, has never been to the NFL playoffs. One victory gets him to the NFC championship game, which would be new ground for the 40-year-old Saints franchise.

NFC title games have become old hat for the Eagles under coach Andy Reid. They’ve been to four of the last five, winning once. They’re still looking for that first Super Bowl victory, but this didn’t look like their year when superstar quarterback Donovan McNabb went out for the season with a fluky knee injury.

But reserve quarterback Jeff Garcia has been a good fit for the Eagles, having thrived under a similar offense in San Francisco before a pair of miserable seasons in Cleveland and Detroit. The Eagles dropped to 5-6 after losing Garcia’s first start, but have won all six games since.

“You always dream and really look forward to being a part of something special,” Garcia said after practice this week. “That’s really what we have going for us right now; a great group of guys that work extremely hard, that are extremely focused on doing the right thing in trying to attain that ultimate goal.”

Very few expected the Saints, displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to emerge from a vagabond 3-13 season as playoff contenders in 2006.

The new year brought a series of event that set the Saints on a fast track to the top.

They found the right coach in Sean Payton, who had been overlooked by some other teams looking for new coaches. They signed new quarterback Drew Brees, whose health was deemed suspect by doctors for the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins went with Daunte Culpepper and missed the playoffs again. Brees threw for and NFL-best 4,418 yards while directing the top offense in the NFL.

Former Pro Bowl running back McAllister, who missed most of 2005 with a torn knee ligament, rehabilitated well enough to register his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season.

And Marques Colston, seventh-round draft pick out of Division I-AA Hofstra, emerged as the team’s most productive receiver.

Then there was the matter of the Saints playing in New Orleans at all. The Superdome, home to Super Bowls, Final Fours, legendary concerts and even a papal visit, was torn up badly by Katrina, then further damaged by its use as a shelter for stranded storm victims.

Some suggested it be torn down. Instead it was rebuilt in time for the Saints to play a full home schedule one season later — and now at least one playoff game.

Does the word destiny come to mind?

“People say, ‘Everything you went through last year, you’re destined to get there,”‘ McAllister said. “That’s not necessarily true. You’re hoping and praying that that’s true. You still have to go out there and play the game.

“Philly is not going to give you anything. So if you can get this one, then we’ll talk about that next one,” McAllister said. “We’ll see exactly where destiny stands.”