MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The paper bags can be put away forever. The franchise that once was so awful its fans were embarrassed to show their faces, is now a world champion.
The New Orleans Saints, who went 21 seasons before reaching the playoffs and 34 seasons before winning a postseason game, completed their storybook season Sunday night by rallying past the favored Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV in Sun Life Stadium.
The fourth quarter was basically a summary of their entire season: the offense dominated down the stretch and the defense came up with a game-changing play.
"Words can't describe what this means for New Orleans," said cornerback Tracy Porter, who closed the scoring with a 74-yard interception return with 3:12 to play. "I am a Louisiana native, and this is real big."
To understand how big, you have to realize from where the Saints have come. Only four years ago, owner Tom Benson allegedly was looking to move the franchise to San Antonio before then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue rebuffed him, in part because he understood the relationship between the team and the city ran deeper than the fleurs de lis on the sides of the helmets.
That much was obvious Sunday night when locals spilled into the streets to celebrate the franchise's Super Bowl win. Quarterback Drew Brees was voted the game's MVP after completing 16-of-17 passes in the second half and 32-of-39 overall for 288 yards and two scores. His 2-yard strike to Jeremy Shockey with 5:30 remaining provided the Saints with a 24-17 lead they would not relinquish. Two minutes later, Porter stepped in front of a Peyton Manning pass intended for Reggie Wayne and returned it for the back-breaking score.
It was the Saints' eighth takeaway of the postseason and their ninth defensive touchdown of the year.
"I took about 10 steps and dropped to my knees and thanked the Lord," safety Roman Harper said of his reaction as Porter raced downfield.
The ending wasn't thrilling as much as it was sudden. New Orleans (16-3) appeared tight to start the game and fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter. But it gradually found its legs and scored the next 13 points to set up a back-and-forth finish that culminated with the Saints overcoming a 17-16 fourth-quarter deficit.
Many had predicted the game would be high-scoring, but the teams managed only two offensive touchdowns each. New Orleans, which averaged a league-high 31.9 points a game during the regular season, was so out of sorts offensively that it managed only three field goals on its first five trips inside the Indy 30-yard line. The most notable moments through two-plus quarters were provided by Saints coach Sean Payton, who unsuccessfully went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the closing minutes of the first half, then opened the third quarter by calling for a successful onside kick.
The recovery appeared to energize the Saints, who drove for their first touchdown, a 16-yard catch-and-run by Pierre Thomas to make it 13-10, New Orleans. Brees was 7-of-7 for 44 yards on the drive, providing onlookers with a taste of what was to come. His performance was even more memorable considering there was uncertainty whether he would ever play again after sustaining a near complete tear of the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder to conclude the 2005 season with San Diego.
But Brees believes in a higher power, and he says it was destiny that brought him to New Orleans and the Saints to the Super Bowl -- although the early returns didn't indicate the Saints were headed toward a championship.
During the regular season, they ranked fourth in the league in touchdown percentage (52.9) inside the opposing 30-yard line by reaching the end zone on 45 of their 85 possessions. But they managed only one touchdown on their first five trips inside the Indianapolis 30; they kicked field goals on three other possessions and were stopped on downs the other time -- glaring struggles. In fact, New Orleans' only touchdown to that point occurred when Indy's defense was off-kilter after New Orleans converted its onside kick.
"We've seen the onside kick all week and guys executed it well," Payton said. "When you do something like that, you just put it on the players, and they were able to execute. It turned out to be a big change of possession."
Indianapolis' kicking game also figured prominently. When Matt Stover missed a 51-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter, it seemed provide New Orleans with another adrenaline rush. Brees then drove the Saints 59 yards for the touchdown to Shockey, and Porter followed with his score after Manning marched the Colts to the New Orleans 25.
Manning, who had played with poise -- if not efficient brilliance -- before the interception, finished 31-of-45 for 333 yards and one touchdown. Saints defenders said he had thrown that route several times earlier in the game, so they knew he would go away from the pressure when they overloaded one side of the formation with defenders.
Porter credited his film study for the takeaway. Brees credited destiny. Saints fans? They didn't care. All that mattered was that they are world champions for the first time. Let Mardi Gras begin.