NEW ORLEANS - Sean Payton carefully avoided superlatives, even as his New Orleans Saints chased perfection in bolting to a 13-0 start.
As the New England Patriots learned two years ago, it's not about pursuing 19-0, it's about pursuing victory in the final game.
Maybe when this season is over, a three-game skid to end the regular season, including home losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will turn out to be the springboard Payton's Saints needed entering the playoffs.
Momentum can be a fleeting thing, but New Orleans grabbed firm control of it last night when it crushed the Arizona Cardinals, 45-14, in a divisional playoff game at the Louisiana Superdome. In the NFC title game, the Saints will play the winner of today's game between the Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings.
A city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina nearly 41/2 years ago will host the NFC championship game in the building that once was home to displaced residents. "Who dat!" the fans chanted last night as they filed out of the Superdome.
A franchise that never has reached the Super Bowl is one victory from a Feb. 7 date in Miami.
Payton, whose team hadn't played a meaningful game in three weeks, downplayed the magnificence of the victory over the defending NFC champions.
"I thought in all three phases we played a real good game," said Payton, who was the Eagles' quarterbacks coach in 1997-98. "We came off a stretch where we had all the advantages of being rested. We played with a lot of energy."
Quarterback Drew Brees completed 23 of 32 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He threw a 17-yard score to Jeremy Shockey, connected with Devery Henderson on a 44-yarder off a flea-flicker, and hit Marques Colston for a 2-yarder before halftime to put the Saints ahead, 35-14, against a secondary that lost cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a knee injury and free safety Antrel Rolle to a concussion.
"We were tired of the questions [about the layoff]," Brees said. "We wanted to get it going. It was hard for anybody to understand that plan if you're not a member of my team, but we trusted in that plan, that process. We executed throughout the week, and it showed."
There will be speculation that this was the final game for 38-year-old Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, and if that's the case, it will mark the end of a special career. Warner willed the Cardinals to this point with his effort in the wild-card victory over the Green Bay Packers, but the Cardinals surrendered 90 points in two playoff games.
Warner was sidelined briefly with a rib injury when Bobby McCray blindsided him trying to make a play on Will Smith after an interception late in the second quarter.
"A big hit like that makes you think twice about playing this game," Warner said to reporters with a laugh. "I have a lot of ideas in my head, but what I need is to get away from the season and talk it over with my wife. As I've told you a million times before, [retirement] is something I will think about and answer later. I don't think it will be a long and drawn-out process."
Reggie Bush scored on a 46-yard run in the first quarter as the Saints bolted to a 21-7 lead after the Cardinals' Tim Hightower had a 70-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. It was the longest run in postseason history for the Saints, and Bush later added an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
If the Cowboys win today at Minnesota, it will set up a rematch of the Week 15 meeting. The Cowboys simply beat up the Saints, 24-17, in New Orleans to give them their first loss. But, as they chanted into the night in the revelry nearby, "Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?"