In his first postseason start, Aaron Brooks passed for four touchdowns, including three to Willie Jackson, as the New Orleans Saints built a 24-point lead and held on for a 31-28 victory over the Rams.
The Saints (11-6) earned their first-ever playoff win and will visit the Minnesota Vikings (11-5) on January 6 in the divisional playoffs.
Six days ago, NFL MVP Marshall Faulk rushed for a career-high 220 yards and three touchdowns to lead St. Louis to a 26-21 win at New Orleans. The victory, coupled with Detroit's loss to Chicago, clinched a playoff berth for the Rams.
This time, Saints coach Jim Haslett vowed Faulk would not beat him and he changed from an umbrella defense designed to stop the pass to a more aggressive scheme. The revised game plan worked for more than three quarters as the Saints built a 31-7 lead.
"I thought our defense played as well as you can play against that team," Haslett said. "Some guys stepped up on offense and started making plays -- the Willie Jacksons and the Robert Wilsons. And our special teams played well."
While Brooks directed the offense like a seasoned veteran, Faulk was held to 24 yards on 14 carries and Pro Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner was intercepted three times, including twice by safety Sammmy Knight.
"The running caught us off-guard last week and we made sure it wasn't going to happen again," Saints Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Mitchell said. "They were not going to beat us with the run this time around."
"We had to get to No. 28 (Faulk) and take him out of the game and obviously put as much pressure on Kurt Warner as possible," added Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover. "Maybe not to sack him but let him feel our presence a little bit. We did that."
Ironically, Warner set an NFL record for most touchdown passes in his first playoff start with five last season against Minnesota. Brooks fell one shy of tying it in his postseason debut, hitting Jackson for scoring passes of 10, 49 and 16 yards and connecting with Robert Wilson on a 12-yard TD. He completed 16-of-29 passes for 266 yards with an interception.
"For 3 1/2 quarters, I played poised," Brooks said. "I ran the offense well. I lost it a little bit in the fourth quarter, but we were able to hold on."
Jackson tied a playoff record held by several players with three touchdown catches and finished with six receptions for 142 yards. Jerry Rice of San Francisco was the last to achieve the feat in Super Bowl XXIX against San Diego.
Jackson's performance was especially significant since Saints star receiver Joe Horn suffered a severely sprained right ankle in the first half and did not return.
"As far as the records go, it doesn't mean anything if we didn't win," Jackson said.
The Rams (10-7) staged a furious fourth-quarter rally, scoring 21 points in a seven-minute span to pull within 31-28.
"We just dug ourselves too big a hole here," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "We just couldn't overcome that. We tried like crazy at the end. The turnovers killed us."
Warner hit Ricky Proehl for a 17-yard touchdown, but Faulk failed to score on the two-point conversion with 9:36 left.
Faulk turned a short pass into a 25-yard touchdown with 3:52 left and, after Dre' Bly recovered an onside kick, Warner scored on a five-yard run and connected with Faulk on the two-point conversion to pull the Rams within 31-28 with 2:36 remaining.
However, after St. Louis' defense held, Hakim muffed a punt and Brian Milne recovered for the Saints at the Rams 11 with 1:43 left to seal the win. It was the fifth turnover of the game for the Rams.
"(Hakim) has made so many big plays for us," Faulk said. "We're not going to condemn him for one play."
The Saints had lost their previous four postseason games between the 1987 and 1992 seasons under coach Jim Mora.
Last week against the Rams, Brooks was flustered most of the way before throwing for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Today was a far different story.
Warner, who suffered a mild concussion in last week's game here, was 24-of-40 for 365 yards and three touchdowns.
Isaac Bruce caught seven passes for 127 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown. Faulk had seven receptions for 99 yards.
The Rams picked up where they left off last week, marching 68 yards in 11 plays on their first drive. While Faulk was held to 17 yards on six carries, Warner hit Bruce with a 20-yard pass and connected with tight end Roland Williams for 14 yards. Facing a 3rd-and-11 at the New Orleans 17, Warner connected with Bruce in the end zone to put St. Louis ahead.
New Orleans responded with an 11-play, 70-yard drive that lasted more than six minutes and resulted in a 12-yard TD pass to Wilson four seconds into the second quarter. Without the benefit of an effective running game, Brooks completed 4-of-6 passes for 39 yards and raced around left end for a nine-yard gain.
New Orleans had a chance to break the tie, driving to the St. Louis 29 after a 50-yard catch by Jackson. Four plays later, Brooks was intercepted by safety Devin Bush at the St. Louis 6.
The Rams failed to score on their other four first-half possessions and Warner had a pass picked off by Knight and returned 52 yards to the St. Louis 20. But the Saints had to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Doug Brien with 1:34 left in the half for a 10-7 lead.
On St. Louis' first possession of the second half, Warner was intercepted by nickel back Chris Oldham, who returned it eight yards to the St. Louis 45.
Brooks directed a seven-play scoring drive, hitting Jackson with two passes for 17 yards before the two connected for a 10-yard TD with 8:40 left in the third quarter.
Jackson caught a 49-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline 98 seconds into the fourth quarter to increase New Orleans' lead to 24-7. He shook off cornerback Dexter McCleon at the St. Louis 30, raced to the 10 and slow danced into the end zone.
On St. Louis' next possession, Warner fumbled after he was sacked by defensive end Willie Whitehead and Glover recovered for the Saints at the Rams' 16.
Brooks fired a touchdown pass to Jackson on the next play to give New Orleans a 31-7 lead with 11:57 left.
While the Rams appeared dead, Warner hit Faulk with two passes for 55 yards to the New Orleans 25. One play later, Warner connected with Proehl on a 17-yard TD.
After the Rams defense held, Hakim returned a punt 65 yards to the New Orleans 9 with 6:34 left. But Knight intercepted a pass over the middle and returned it four yards to the New Orleans 12.
"Kurt just didn't see the safety come up on the play," Martz said.
St. Louis regained possession at its own 38 with 4:40 left. Warner hit Bruce with passes of 29 and eight yards before Faulk caught a 25-yard touchdown to pull the Rams within 31-20.
Bly recovered two onside kicks. The first was negated by an offsides penalty, but the second counted and the Rams took over at the New Orleans 47 with 3:43 left.
Warner hit Hakim for 38 yards on 3rd-and-6 to the New Orleans 5. Two plays later, Warner scored on a five-yard run. He had not rushed for a touchdown in the regular season. Faulk caught the two-point conversion.
"We had a great first drive and after that we kept stalling and stalling," Warner said. "I think it was just a cumulative effort. We weren't stepping up and making the plays. Finally, we got it together. But we just dug ourselves too much of a hole. We couldn't get out of it."