McAllister heart and soul of Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- For all his brilliance as an offensive plotter, the fearlessness with which Sean Payton directs the New Orleans attack, the Saints' first-year head coach all but ceded the play-calling chores to the raucous fans threatening to blow the roof off the Superdome for the final few series of Saturday night's divisional-round victory.

And why not permit the fans to usurp his authority?

After all, everyone knew who was getting the football, right, as the Saints clung to a 27-24 lead that would become the final score in a stirring victory over the Philadelphia Eagles?

"Deuce! Deuce! Deuce!" the crowd chanted. And Payton, who earned NFL coach of the year honors in his first year on the job, wasn't about to misplace the genius label. And so Deuce it was, with tailback Deuce McAllister carrying on nine of New Orleans' final 15 snaps to cap off a 143-yard performance that was the biggest element in lifting the Saints into their first-ever NFC conference championship game.

That the Saints are just one victory shy of their first Super Bowl berth -- New Orleans will face the winner of Sunday's Seattle-Chicago game for the right to represent the senior conference in Miami on Feb. 4 -- is about as improbable a story as one could have authored in the preseason. So charged with bleeding the clock, and keeping the ball away from a Philadelphia offense that statistically ranked second in the league during the regular season, Payton wasn't about to do the unthinkable.

If he had done anything but give the ball to McAllister with the outcome on the line, given the manner in which the six-year veteran had trashed the Eagles' front seven, Payton would have been hanged on Bourbon Street. And not just in effigy.

"It was Deuce's night and he deserved it," said fellow tailback Reggie Bush, who carried 12 times for 52 yards and caught three passes for 22 yards.

Indeed, for all the suffering the displaced Saints suffered in 2005, when players and their families uprooted by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, few endured as much as McAllister did. And few deserved to revel more in Saturday's victory, only the second postseason win in the franchise's most miserable history.

Victimized by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, McAllister appeared in a career-low five games in 2005. There weren't many players in the league who wanted to buddy-up to the '05 Saints. But McAllister felt even more removed from what limited normalcy there was last season because of the knee injury. There were times, he acknowledged late Saturday, when he didn't even feel like a part of a team with which only he wanted to be affiliated.

"I'm never going to say, 'Oh, I had it worse than this guy or that guy.' That would (diminish) what every guy who was here last year went through," McAllister said. "But it was hard, man, hard."

On Saturday night, though, poised on the brink of possibly consummating one of the greatest reversals of fortune in NFL history, last season was quickly becoming a fading memory. The Saints are living in the here and now and the vantage point is a pretty attractive one.

"It's a real-life dream," said defensive end Will Smith. "We've had tremendous leadership around here. You look at No. 26 (McAllister) and what he did tonight, running through (defenders), and it was like he willed us to win this game. Seeing Deuce as happy as he is, knowing what it means to him and some guys who have been here for a lot of the (down times), that makes it even more gratifying."

McAllister 28, totaled 163 yards from scrimmage and set the tone for the New Orleans offense, blasting for 12 yards on the Saints' initial snap of the contest. McAllister authored huge plays on all but one of the Saints' five scoring drives -- a 28-yard run to set up a first-quarter field goal, 20 rushing yards on a drive that climaxed with Bush's four-yard touchdown run, a 12-yard dash off left tackle on a possession in which he himself scored on a five-yard run, and then an 11-yard touchdown catch that finished the scoring.

The five-yard touchdown run in the third quarter certainly exemplified what McAllister means to the New Orleans offense, and what an inspiration he is to everyone on the roster. McAllister was hit at the line of scrimmage by Philadelphia linebacker Dhani Jones on the play, but he refused to go down, and just kept churning his legs. The pile of bodies moved steadily forward until McAllister finally crossed the goal line under a mountain of humanity.

"He's an absolute horse," said defensive end Charles Grant.

If anything, in fact, Payton may have been guilty of not getting the ball to McAllister enough in a few stretches. The one downside to having Bush is that, because he is such a threat to score from anywhere, a team is mandated to get him touches within the framework of the offense. But making sure Bush got his requisite carries on Saturday meant McAllister occasionally went ignored.

And he is not a man to ignore in any game, let alone one as big as Saturday's matchup.

"No matter what else happens around here, and taking nothing away from some of the great skill guys we have now, Deuce is still the centerpiece of this offense," right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "He's the engine and, when you've got a guy like that, you ride him."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.