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The hex is over

By Staff
Richard Dark/The Meridian Star
Dec. 31, 2000
NEW ORLEANS The King is dead. The hex is over.
The New Orleans Saints closed out the millennium with their first playoff victory in franchise history and did so by grabbing a big lead and holding on for dear life against the defending Superbowl champion St. Louis Rams in front of a jubilant sellout crowd in the Louisiana Superdome.
On the order of excitement, Saints backup fullback and special teamer Brian Milne's recovery of an Az-Zahir Hakim fumble at the 11-yard line with 1:43 remaining was the icing on the Saints' first playoff cake. Much had been said and written during the past week about how the Saints had to stop the Rams' primary weapon in running back Marshall Faulk. Something must have sunk in with the Saints defense, because Faulk was held to just 24 yards on 14 carries, though he did manage 99 yards in pass receptions, mostly in the final frame.
In a game that featured contrasting quarterbacks, it was the much-heralded Rams field general Kurt Warner, and not Saints QB Aaron Brooks that had problems finding the right receivers.
His three interceptions on the day led to a pair of scores by the Black, or rather the White and Gold.
After Saints defensive lineman Willie Whitehead sacked Warner, Glover recovered the fumble at the 16-yard-line.
Brooks hooked up with Willie Jackson for the third time to push the huge home team margin to 31-7 with 12:02 to go.
But a recurring Saints theme began to play out in the final quarter after the Saints took their largest lead of the day.
A worn down defensive corps, having played a cover and contain game against the high-powered Rams offense for the previous seven quarters, began to show cracks. Thus a furious 21-point comeback ensued.
Warner led his team on a quick four-play, 80-yard production that lasted 2:21. He threw a 17-yard TD pass to veteran receiver Ricky Proehl to bring the Rams to within 31-13. Faulk's two-point conversion run failed.
After a Saints' series that saw its first penalties of the game, the Rams took over at the N.O. 9-yard-line after a huge punt return by Hakim.
Knight grabbed his second interception of the game, preventing a Ram score.
But the Saints couldn't gain any ground and had to punt from their own end zone.
St. Louis parlayed that into another score to inch to within 31-20 when Warner hit Faulk for a 25-yard score at the 3:45 mark.
The dethroned champs still made the Saints and their fans sweat it out after Rams db Dre' Bly recovered the onside kick a play later. Five plays, 47-yards and only a minute later, the Rams were still very much alive, down only by the final margin with 2:36 to play after Warner trotted five yards to the pylon.
This time, however, the onside kick was recovered by Darrin Smith.
Three snaps later Toby Gowin drilled the fateful end-over-end punt and Hakim, much to the delight and relief of Saints fans everywhere, committed the muff.
But, not surprisingly, it was the champs who got on the board first when Warner directed a lengthy 11 play, 68-yard drive that eroded 6:55 seconds of game time. The former Superbowl MVP found Issac Bruce across the middle on a 17-yard touchdown pass, and Rams placekicker Jeff Wilkins booted the first of two successful PAT kicks.
The Saints responded with a long drive of their own. Brooks, who finished the day 16-of-29 passing for 266 yards and four TDS, found Robert Wilson on a 12-yard TD reception near the back of the endzone to tie the score at seven on the first snap of the second quarter.
On the ensuing series, Knight grabbed his first pick of the game, but the Rams defense held and the Saints had to settle for taking a lead they would never relinquish on a 33-yard field goal by Doug Brien.
Despite several close calls, that score held up until the half, as a Big Ben bomb by Brooks fell incomplete on the last play of the first half.
Richard Dark is a sports writer for the Meridian Star. E-mail him at rdark@themeridianstar.com.

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