NEW ORLEANS — One of Pierre Thomas' teammates referred to him as "an animal" after the Saints' playoff opening triumph over Detroit.
Thomas is just happy to be healthy and able to help New Orleans in another playoff run.
The fifth-year running back was a key player in the Saints' lone championship two seasons ago, turning screen passes into long touchdowns in both the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl. In 2010, however, he struggled with a left ankle injury for much of the regular season and was on injured reserve by the time the Saints were bounced from the playoffs in a first-round loss at Seattle.
Thomas made his postseason return against the Lions in Saturday night's first-round game, slipping numerous tackles and bouncing off of some heavy hits on his way to 121 combined yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.
"It was very sweet. I'm blessed to continue my career after my injury," Thomas said. "I just keep fighting. I've been pushing and my teammates have my back. I don't even think about the injury. I just go out and keep playing. After last year, this win was great not only for me, but the whole team."
Thomas has been effective all season long, but has been overshadowed both by the Saints record-breaking passing game and the fact that he is part of a deep running back corps that has shared work all season, contributing to mediocre numbers in some of the statistics by which running backs are judged.
Thomas was second on the team in rushing with 562 yards and five touchdowns, but carried the ball only 110 times all season, meaning he averaged a respectable 5.1 yards per carry. He also caught 50 passes for 425 yards and a score.
Thomas total of 160 plays with the ball were relatively low when compared to other versatile running backs such as Chicago's Matt Forte, who either carried or caught the ball 255 times in 12 games before missing the last four games of the season with an injury.
That means Thomas is fresh for the postseason, and he looked like it in the Saints' 45-28 victory over Detroit.
On third-and-10 during the Saints' second offensive series, Thomas made one tackler miss, bounced off a second and dragged a third just far enough to get the first down. Later on that drive, Thomas ripped through a defensive lineman's arms and broke Louis Delmas' attempted tackle 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage while scampering for a gain of 31.
Those plays sustained a scoring drive that tied the game at 7.
On a subsequent series, Thomas caught a screen pass, juked one tackler, split two more while spinning and stumbling forward, planted his hand on the turf to keep his balance and briefly regained his stride for a gain of 14 before three tacklers brought him down.
"I couldn't believe he stayed up," offensive guard Carl Nicks marveled. "I mean, that guy's an animal, right?"
Thomas added an 18-yard run during a scoring drive in the second half and also bounced away from a head-on hit by linebacker Jason Durant during a 9-yard gain that set up another score.
"I always tell myself to not let the first guy take me down," Thomas said. "I try to break as many tackles as I can and get in that end zone. Everyone tells me that I have freaky balance, but it's the gift that God gave me."
Thomas capped his performance with a 1-yard touchdown that iced the game late in the fourth quarter, but which also lowered his yards per carry to a still impressive 8.3.
"We're just a different team when that guy's healthy, I'll tell you that much," Nicks said.
Nicks just might be on to something. The Saints are now 5-2 in the postseason since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees combined to give New Orleans one of the league's best offenses in 2006. However, the Saints are 4-0 in the playoffs when Thomas has been in the lineup.
Brees has always spoken highly of Thomas, mentioning how he respects the running back's rise in the NFL after making the Saints' roster as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois in 2007.
The star quarterback could only gush about Thomas' latest outing.
"I've never played with a guy who's tougher, smarter or more versatile. He's everything you'd want in a teammate, and he has been a huge part of that backfield for the last five years," Brees said. "Rarely do I get the chance to sit back and watch because I'm always thinking about the next play or the next series or whatever the situation might be, but I could not help but notice the way he ran (Saturday night), shedding tacklers one after another, getting the tough yards. It was phenomenal."
Notes: The Saints scheduled Monday as a day off, although they were not discouraged from coming in on their own to study film and work out. ... The club resumes practice Tuesday through Thursday, and will fly to San Francisco on Thursday evening. They will then walk through the game plan at Candlestick Park on Friday to get adjusted to the field and the time zone change in advance of Saturday afternoon's game.