SIDELINE PATROL: How bout dem Saints?
As the final 44 seconds of Super Bowl XLIV ran off the clock Sunday night after New Orleans native Peyton Manning’s final pass fell to the old gold painted sod of Sun Life Stadium’s end zone, I asked myself, “Did that just happen?”
Most were thinking the same thing. Was it really true? Did the New Orleans Saints just upset the Indianapolis Colts and win the Super Bowl for the first time in 44 years of their existence?
Well yes, they did, leaving little doubt about who the best team in the National Football League was this year.
Sunday’s game capped an unbelievable season that many thought would never come. After grappling with countless defeats and unfortunate bad luck since their inception in 1967, the Saints’ victory concluded just their ninth winning season and was only their fifth playoff victory ever.
Three of those postseason wins came this season after the Saints became just the seventh team to start the season 13-0 and first in the NFC to do so. Their undefeated start to the season was matched by the Colts who began 14-0 and the Super Bowl to decide the league’s champion turned into the most watched TV program in history surpassing the “M.A.S.H” which stood for over 25 years.
In a stadium that has changed its name seven times holding a different tag than it did just four months ago when the Saints rallied from 21 points down against the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans completed its season of destiny and in the process turned into the latest version of America’s Team.
Four and a half years after the devastation and loss of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in this country’s history, that flooded nearly the entire city, New Orleans grabbed its first championship and didn’t let go.
I have watched the Saints and been a fan of them and football since I was old enough to remember. I recall the excitement of the teams that included linebackers Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and Sam Mills, quarterback Bobby Hebert, running back Dalton Hilliard and wide receiver Eric Martin and it was because of my interest in them that I was able to get my first taste of journalism that has lasted until now, nearly 20 years later.
Perhaps that intrigue also led to the desire to participate in the game as well due to a dream of continuing to their stage. The game ends for everyone at some time and there are only a select few who get to live out their dreams in that theater.
I had incredible expectations for this year’s version of the Saints and that is probably what fascinates me the most. They lived up to them, even exceeding everything I could have possibly dreamed off.
When Sean Payton took over as head coach the season after Katrina, I did not know what to expect out of the franchise that took five attempts to win its first playoff game and was coming off a 3-13 season that saw the Saints play home games everywhere from New York to San Antonio.
Then all of sudden, they were good. Really good. Probably better than the team had ever been. The Saints began the season 5-1 re-opening the Louisiana Superdome, which housed victims of the storm just a year earlier, in the process and advanced to their first NFC Championship in history. Using free agency to acquire quarterback Drew Brees, linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle and drafting wide receiver Marques Colston, running back Reggie Bush, offensive lineman Jahiri Evans and safety Roman Harper, they made a complete turnaround and laid the foundation for this season’s success.
Expectations did not lessen despite two subsequent subpar seasons without postseason berths because the Saints still showed they were capable and after Brees became just the second quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in one season a year ago the stage was set for the culmination.
Payton’s calculated risks that brought this group together also paid off Sunday. Trailing 10-6 at half-time, the Saints opened the second half by recovering an onsides kick after falling short on fourth down near the goal line in the first half.
The Saints weathered the storm and Brees began a clinic in the second half completing 16-of-17 passes including his last 10 attempts while throwing touchdowns passes to running back Pierre Thomas and tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Free safety Darren Sharper did not allow anything deep from Manning and linebacker Jonathan Vilma was superb on both the run and the pass but even better at making adjustments at the last second to combat those of Manning made at the line of scrimmage.
And with the opportunity to knot it up in the fourth quarter, Manning found himself blocked to the ground by defensive end Will Smith after cornerback Tracy Porter of Port Allen stepped in front of a pass intended for Reggie Wayne of New Orleans and jetted 74 yards into the end zone.
As the confetti fell and Manning whisked his way to the locker room, Brees lived the dream for us being named the Super Bowl MVP taking in all in with his wife Brittany and one-year-old son Baylen on the podium of the biggest stage ever.
Both quarterbacks played great giving what the defenses gave them. Brees tied the Super Bowl record for most completions finishing 32-of-37 for 288 yards and two touchdowns, while Manning completed 31-of-45 passes for 333 yards and one touchdown. The difference was Manning’s interception as Brees completed the postseason run with no picks.
After all the talk leading up the Super Bowl about Manning securing his right to claim being one of the best quarterbacks ever with a second championship, an ESPN poll asked who of two would be more likely to get a second title first after Brees won his first Sunday. Surprisingly, not one state other than Louisiana picked Brees proving what he and the Saints really mean to the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana.
That is what made the victory so special. The underdog Saints defeated their native son and football royalty and despite the impressive nature by which they did it, still find themselves at a disadvantage. Odds makers have placed New Orleans below Indianapolis and San Diego as favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl.
Expectations can’t increase for the Saints next season because they have accomplished more than anything we could have ever dreamed of. Still, they are the only team that can repeat because they are the champions.