<
>

Playoff-bound Saints rest key starters in loss to Panthers

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Drew Brees trotted to the sidelines saluting
the crowd as the chant "M-V-P" resonated throughout the Louisiana
Superdome.

More than five minutes still remained in the first quarter, but
a celebration of the Saints' storybook return to New Orleans -- and
the playoffs -- already had begun.

The stage is set. The Chiefs-Colts game in Indianapolis will kick off wild-card weekend on Saturday, with three games to follow. First-round byes go to the Chargers (No. 1 seed) and Ravens in the AFC, and the Bears (No. 1) and Saints in the NFC. This weekend's lineup:

SATURDAY
AFC: Chiefs at Colts, 4:30 ET (NBC)
NFC: Cowboys at Seahawks, 8 ET (NBC)

SUNDAY
AFC: Jets at Patriots, 1 ET (CBS)
NFC: Giants at Eagles, 4:30 ET (FOX)

• For the complete playoff schedule, click here.

In a game without postseason implications, the Saints'
regular-season finale against the Carolina Panthers became more of
a massive pep rally for New Orleans fans, who on New Year's Eve had
more to cheer about than most would have anticipated a year ago.

That the Saints lost 31-21 on Sunday, playing mostly backups,
hardly mattered.

"For these fans and these people, their spirit has been with us
the entire time," said Brees, who'll take the field again two
weeks from now in the second round of the NFC playoffs.
"Everything they've gone through ... for us to be able to come
back home and give them what they deserve, that feels good for us,
and we just want to turn around and say thank you to them."

With the revamped Saints (10-6) set to host their first playoff
game in the rebuilt Superdome, coach Sean Payton removed a number
of starters early in hopes of keeping his club as healthy as
possible.

Jake Delhomme and the Panthers' starters pulled away against the
Saints' reserves, but there would be no booing of the home team
this time. Brees, Reggie Bush and numerous other players shook
hands and socialized with cheering fans along the edge of the field
before finally heading into the locker room.

"I ran around the whole stadium. I'm tired," said Bush, who
also resisted the tugs of his marketing agent while signing
autographs for children near the players' exit.

Brees played only one full series and was 4-of-5 for 46 yards.
He led a scoring drive that ended with Bush's short touchdown run
that put New Orleans up 7-0.

Coming back from complicated offseason throwing shoulder surgery
that left his future in doubt, Brees finished the regular season
with career-best 4,418 yards passing and MVP credentials. His 26
touchdown passes were one short of tying his career regular-season
best of 2004.

"For me, after my shoulder injury, a lot of things were up in
the air," Brees said. "Not only did I not know where I was going
to be playing football, but I didn't even know, truthfully ... if I
was going to be able to play football again."

The Saints "had that confidence in me and that belief in me,"
Brees continued. "The reason I'm here is because they had as much
confidence in me as I did."

Payton gave running back Deuce McAllister the day off. New
Orleans, which was 3-13 last year, will be the second seed in the
NFC playoffs.

Bush played little more than a quarter. On defense, New Orleans
rested several starters, including Pro Bowl defensive end Will
Smith.

Carolina (8-8), the preseason favorite in the NFC south, was out
of postseason contention by the time they took the field Sunday.

"You usually get what you deserve in this business and we dug
ourselves that hole," Carolina coach John Fox said. "The
difference between 10-6 and 8-8 is two games."

Yet, with a chance to avoid a losing season and sweep the season
series against the NFC South champs, the Panthers kept most of
their starters in late into the fourth quarter.

Returning from a thumb injury that had kept him out for three
games, Delhomme completed his first four passes and hit Steve Smith
with a 22-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.

Delhomme was 23-of-27 for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns to
Smith, who had 85 yards receiving.

New Orleans regained the lead early in the second quarter, when
Jamaal Branch, an NFL Europe prospect who had spent most of the
season on the practice squad, turned a short pass into a 7-yard
touchdown from Jamie Martin.

The Panthers went ahead 28-14 in the third quarter after Chris
Gamble's 18-yard interception return TD and Delhomme's 15-yard
scoring pass to Smith.

Delhomme, a Louisiana native and former Saint, paused and smiled
when asked if he was happy the Saints were playoff bound in their
first season back in New Orleans after being displaced by Hurricane
Katrina.

"I'm happy that the Superdome's back open. I'm happy for things
like that, but I mean, let's be honest, we wanted to win the NFC
South, I didn't want the Saints to win it," he said. "I told Drew
and Deuce after, "Hey, go play it. Anybody can win it."

Game notes
Delhomme finished the season throwing for 2,805 yards and
17 TDs with 11 interceptions in 13 games. ... Panthers spokesman
Charlie Dayton said contract extensions had been reached with
running back Nick Goings and tackle Jeremy Bridges. He said he
could not disclose the terms at this time.