NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints got a celebration and a scare, a history-making victory over the defending Super Bowl champs that felt like Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve and Halloween all wrapped up in one.
Aaron Brooks threw three of his four touchdown passes to Willie Jackson, and the Saints held off a huge fourth-quarter rally by St. Louis for a 31-28 win Saturday, the first playoff victory in their 34-year history.
''I feel the same as every other fan out there,'' owner Tom Benson said. ''It's so exciting, so different than we've been accustomed to. I know a lot of people out there were saying, 'Same old Saints.' But we did it.''
From the voodoo ceremony before kickoff to the famous Benson Boogie at the end, this had the makings of a truly New Orleans party. It was a befitting of a Saints breakthrough after decades of frustration and an 0-4 lifetime playoff record.
Of course, it wouldn't have been a real Saints experience without a major scare or two.
After going ahead 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, New Orleans (11-6) watched Kurt Warner drive the Rams to three quick touchdowns, shaving the deficit to 31-28.
After the final touchdown at the 2:36 mark, the Saints recovered the Rams' onside kick. The Rams (10-7) forced a punt, but Az Hakim muffed an easy fair catch at his own 11, and New Orleans recovered.
''My teammates were all very supportive of me,'' Hakim said. ''But I felt we went out on that play.''
Indeed, all Brooks needed to do was take a knee three times, and one of the most downtrodden franchises in sports history finally had reason to celebrate.
''The city, the front office and the fans all deserve this,'' said defensive lineman Joe Johnson, a seven-year veteran of the Saints, who helped coach Jim Haslett resurrect this team after Mike Ditka's virtual gutting of the franchise.
''But it's not over. We've got to keep on moving.''
The Saints, who surprised everyone to win just their second NFC West title this season, will try to keep the magic going next weekend in Minnesota.
The Rams made the NFC wild-card game last week with the unlikely scenario of a victory at New Orleans combined with a Bears upset of Detroit. But there will be no Super Bowl run this season after the Rams had five turnovers, a number of costly penalties and Warner's ineffectiveness before desperation set in.
''I'm proud of this football team,'' Rams coach Mike Martz said. ''I am satisfied with the effort that they gave out there. I'm very disappointed with the outcome and some of the things that transpired during the game. But, I can't change those things.''
Warner threw for 365 yards -- most after the Rams fell far behind -- and three interceptions, while losing one fumble. He wasn't sharp until the end, possibly because of the grogginess and light-sensitivity he experienced after a concussion here last week.
''I gave it everything I had,'' Warner said. ''But we dug a hole for ourselves. I'm the leader of our offense. I'm always responsible.''
The NFL's Most Valuable Player, Marshall Faulk, gained a season-low 24 yards against a New Orleans defense that got tough after allowing him 220 yards rushing in the 26-21 loss. He finished with 99 yards receiving and one touchdown, but was a nonfactor in the passing game until New Orleans led 31-7.
Did the Saints change anything from last week?
''No,'' Faulk said. ''They just stepped up and made plays.''
On offense, too.
And as usual, if they were making plays for the Saints, they couldn't be household names.
Brooks, a second-year quarterback making just his sixth career start, finished with 266 yards passing and four touchdowns -- a Saints playoff record, of course. He also led New Orleans in rushing with 26 yards, five more than journeyman Terry Allen, who came out of retirement to join the Saints in November.
''Football is football,'' Brooks said. ''When you know the game, you go out and play it. It doesn't matter what field you're on. Your goals are the same. What you're doing is the same. That's how I feel about it.''
Jackson, an unheralded veteran, had six receptions for 142 yards and matched an NFL playoff record with his three touchdown catches. Fittingly, he was thrust into the spotlight when the Saints' receiving leader, Joe Horn, sprained his ankle in the first quarter.
With Horn on the sideline, the Saints played the bulk of their first playoff game since 1993 without their leading receiver, passer and rusher. Quarterback Jeff Blake (foot) and running back Ricky Williams (ankle) have been gone for weeks.
''You try to take advantage of the opportunities when they come,'' Jackson said. ''You don't know when you're going to get it, but when it comes, you've got to step up.''
Safety Sammy Knight had two interceptions, including an off-balance, one-handed grab of Warner's pass that negated Hakim's 65-yard punt return to the Saints 9, after St. Louis closed to 31-13.
Minutes earlier, Warner led the Rams 80 yards to give the Rams life, and not even Knight's second interception could suck the spirit out of the defending champions.
After quickly stopping the Saints, Faulk caught a screen pass and twisted his way for a 25-yard touchdown, capping a three-play drive and cutting the deficit to 31-20. The Rams recovered an onside kick, and five plays later, Warner scooted in from 5 yards, and a 2-point conversion shaved the deficit to a field goal.
Then came Hakim's fatal fumble, and the NFL was ensured of a new champion in 2000.
Notes: Warner threw five touchdown passes in his first playoff start, an NFL record. Brooks' four touchdown passes tied him for second on that list. ... The Saints were outscored 123-56 in their four playoff losses. ... With the New Orleans victory, the Baltimore Ravens are the only active NFL franchise without a postseason win. The Ravens play Denver on Sunday. ... The last player to catch three touchdown passes in a playoff game was Jerry Rice in 1994. Rice has accomplished the feat three times. ... The Rams fell to 0-19 in the playoffs when falling behind by seven or more.
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