• Well I don't know if they're going to go quite marching in, but the New Orleans Saints, after 43 mostly star-crossed seasons, are Super Bowl-bound.
What a game, and what a ride the Saints and Vikings took us on Sunday at a Superdome filled with spent football fans. And what can you say about the twist of fate that saw Brett Favre throw Minnesota's season and Super Bowl hopes away with one of the worst interceptions of his 19-year NFL career? Shades of 2007, all over again for No. 4.
I'm not sure either team deserved to win this turnover-happy slopfest, but in the end, the top-seeded Saints won the overtime coin flip, and made enough plays on the only drive in the extra period to position Garrett Hartley for a game-winning 40-yard field goal.
And now we get to look forward to the first Super Bowl pairing of No. 1 teams since Dallas and Buffalo met in January 1994 (Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta). The Colts and Saints were the two best teams in their conference all season, and now they'll fight it out in Miami for overall NFL supremacy.
• What a horrible ending for Favre's magical season in Minnesota. His critics said all year that sooner or later Favre would hurt the Vikings as much as he helped them. And it finally happened, with that horribly ill-advised interception with seven seconds left in regulation and the Vikings in position to at least try a game-winning field goal.
It's a cardinal sin in the NFL: You don't throw late over the middle. And that's exactly what Favre did. He played heroically at times on Sunday, fighting through a left ankle injury and a constant battering. But all that's really going to be remembered about this one is his game-changing pick.
I have to believe Favre will never let that pass be his last one in the NFL, any more than he did when he threw that game-deciding interception in overtime of the Packers' 2007 NFC title game loss at home against the Giants. We'll have No. 4 back in 2010, no matter what he might say or announce in the coming days or weeks.
I'm counting on it.
• Mark Sanchez and Favre were the SI coverboys last week. And, um, they went 0-for-Championship Sunday. The jinx lives
• Nice showing by the glamour running backs in this one. It wasn't pants on the ground -- it was the football. The Saints' Reggie Bush muffed that punt return late in the first half, a sin he didn't wind up having to pay for because the Vikings' Adrian Peterson failed to connect on a hand-off from Favre shortly thereafter. (Officially Favre got the fumble, and the play was listed as aborted).
Peterson then fumbled early in the third quarter, but lucked out himself after Saints linebacker Scott Shanle tried to pick it up and run, rather than fall on it. Vikings fullback Naufahu Tahi wound up recovering for Minnesota. Unbelievably, Peterson fumbled again on the Vikings' next possession, and just as improbably, it again didn't cost his team because he scrambled up and recovered the ball 10 yards downfield.
Peterson has always been a fumbler, but he entered play having not coughed up a ball since Minnesota's Dec. 28 loss at Chicago.
• Five turnovers and the Vikings still had a chance, a good chance, to win this game. That's remarkable. And it speaks to how putrid the Saints offense was for most of the game. New Orleans had just 257 yards of offense, and won. Minnesota had 475 yards ... and lost.
The Saints were just 3 of 12 on third downs, and that's the worst we've seen Drew Brees play all season. And yet somehow, Brees was 17 of 31 for 197 yards passing, three touchdowns and a 106.5 QB rating.
• Darren Sharper was a heat-seeking missile for New Orleans most of the game. The Saints safety flies to the ball like very few players in this league. And at one point in the first half, Peterson lowered his helmet and tried to run over Sharper, and Sharper didn't budge one inch.
• As for the early game ... It was nothing less than the 58 seconds that saved the Colts' season, and who would have thought that rookie receiver Austin Collie would be the guy who stepped up to play savior? The situation was this: A stunned Colts team trailed the Jets 17-6, thanks to the 48-yard field goal that Jay Feely just converted with 2:11 left in the first half. New York has every bit of momentum that exists in the game, and if the Colts don't answer -- and answer with a touchdown, right here, right now -- this whole day, and their season, could be gone in the blink of an eye.
But showing a lot of the same mettle that helped them climb out of that 18-point, second-quarter deficit against New England in the AFC title game three years ago, the Colts proceeded to go 80 yards in four plays, with all 80 coming on three Collie receptions. After a first-down incompletion in the direction of Dallas Clark,Peyton Manning found Collie for 18 yards, then again over the deep middle for 46, and finally with a 16-yard scoring strike, making the score 17-13 just before the half, and giving everyone on the Indy sideline reason to exhale.
The 46-yard bomb to Collie was a thing of beauty by Manning, just barely clearing the outstretched hands of Jets defensive back Drew Coleman and hitting Collie between the numbers. But Collie made a fine catch on the touchdown pass, going high to snag the bullet from Manning and safely get both feet down in the end zone.
Here's the most amazing thing about Collie, who had a monster game (7 catches for 123 yards and one TD) when Indy desperately needed one: Manning trusted him from almost day one of training camp. That's unheard of from No. 18 when it comes to rookies. And especially rookie receivers who Manning has to break in on the fly, as part of replacing the departed Marvin Harrison and the injured Anthony Gonzalez.
But now I think I understand why Manning had such faith in the former BYU standout early this season. Collie doesn't play like a rookie, or respond to pressure like a rookie.
• Stop Reggie Wayne and Clark and you probably stop the Colts passing game, right? Not on Sunday. Wayne and Clark combined for just seven catches, 90 yards and one touchdown, and I'm sure Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis had a bit to do with that, especially in the case of Wayne, who he blanketed for much of the game. Clark dropped one ball right in his hands, and on one of Wayne's three catches, he fumbled but wound up recovering his own miscue.
But without his two favorite passing targets as steady threats, Manning merely looked to Pierre Garcon and Collie, finding those two for a combined 18 times, 274 yards and two touchdowns. Garcon was nothing short of phenomenal for the Colts, catching an AFC title game-record 11 passes for 151 yards, including the four-yard touchdown that gave Indy the lead for good at 20-17 with 8:03 left in the third quarter.
Those two receivers sparked the Colts to a run of 24 unanswered points to end the game, and helped Manning finish with superb numbers against a Jets defense that finished first overall in yards allowed and pass defense: 26 of 39 for 377 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 123.6 passer rating. All told, Indy had a gaudy 461 yards against a Jets defense that had been dominant at times this season. Manning's 377 yards passing were 224 more than New York allowed, on average, this year.
Pretty impressive stuff by the guys with the horseshoes on their helmets.
• The Jets losing rookie running back Shonn Greene with injured ribs in the third quarter wound up being a killer loss. Greene left with New York leading 17-13. He had 41 yards on 10 carries at the time, and had just ripped off two consecutive gains of seven yards each to start the Jets' first drive of the second half.
New York led the NFL with 172.2 rushing yards per game, but wound up with almost exactly half of that total against the Colts: 86 yards on 29 carries, just 3.0 per attempt. Thomas Jones led New York with 42 yards rushing, but it came on 16 carries, for a measly 2.6 average gain.
• On the flip side, I was surprised at how effectively the rushing-challenged Colts ran the ball against a New York defense that ranked 8th in the league, giving up 98.6 yards per game. Led by Joseph Addai's 80 yards on 16 carries (5.0), Indy totaled 101 yards on 24 rushes, a healthy 4.2 average.
True, the Bengals ran well against the Jets two weeks ago in the wild-card round, going for 170-yards-plus. But very few teams hit triple digits against New York's run defense, and being able to move it on the ground when they needed to really aided the Colts.
• Rex Ryan's body of work during his first year on the Jets sideline deserves a big thumb's up by any number of parameters. But, first and foremost, he instilled confidence and the sense that anything is possible in his team's locker room, and that's been missing in New York for about four decades.
The Jets were 30 minutes away from the Super Bowl before coming to earth -- and hard -- in the second half against Indianapolis. But Ryan changed the losing culture this season, and that should serve as a foundation upon which to build even bigger and better things in the years ahead.
• Well, I think that about settles it. The Colts have made the Super Bowl for the fourth time in franchise history and that means they didn't suffer from their decision to rest some starters late in the regular season. Indy lost its perfect season to the Jets in Week 16, but in every game it tried to win, it did, going 16-0 in that situation.
Even if Indy doesn't wind up winning its second Super Bowl ring in four seasons, the second-guessing of the Colts' strategy is a dead issue. In what would have been a cruel twist of fate, Indy didn't lose in the playoffs to the Jets, the team it could have eliminated in Week 16 if it had played all its starters and won.
• Until New Orleans hosts a Super Bowl that includes the Saints, Sunday's NFC title game will stand as the biggest game in franchise history in this football-mad town. In the 20 years I've been covering the NFL, I've never seen a city more jacked to the gills and ready to erupt over a football game, or more in love with the local team. And that goes for places like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Philly and Denver, where football and true fanaticism long ago blended seamlessly.
• Maybe all that stuff about Mark Sanchez not being a rookie any more since the start of the Jets' second season wasn't just typical coach-speak. Sanchez certainly looked every bit the calm, cool, collected veteran quarterback in a game that, by all rights, should have been too big for him at this point in his career.
Sanchez finished 17 of 30 for 257 yards, with two touchdowns and one late-game interception. But he really made some tricky throws against the Colts, and his poise in such a high-stakes setting was impressive. His showing in the Jets' three playoff games casts his rookie season in an entirely different light, compared to how his up-and-down regular season seemed to end.
• When Jay Feely missed that 52-yard field goal attempt early in the third quarter, his second failure of the game (he also blew a 44-yard attempt in the first quarter), all I could think of was: This year's postseason from hell for NFL kickers just got a little bit more hellacious.
• Colts rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey has played a lot and played well this season, but when he gave up that 80-yard bomb to Braylon Edwards early in the second quarter, it sure looked like the foot injury that sidelined fellow Colts rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers would prove very costly.
• Speaking of Edwards, when you get an 80-yard scoring catch out of him -- a guy with perhaps the shakiest hands in the league -- you pretty much have to win that game. Don't you?
• Not that it really matters now, but that Manning sneak on third-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter really should be tossed out of the Colts playbook for good. It had absolutely no chance to succeed, and even with Manning's forward momentum, he never even got a sniff of the line of scrimmage.
• We got that nice shot of Eli Manning up in the suite level celebrating his brother's game-clinching touchdown pass to Dallas Clark. And I bet every Jets fan who saw it was ticked that Eli dared to root against a New York team.
• For what it's worth, the biggest buzz I witnessed Sunday in New Orleans was when the "Pants on the Ground'' guy showed up in the lobby of the JW Marriott, the Vikings team hotel Saturday night, and the media hotel for the NFC title game.
And if you're wondering, no, I didn't have a clue as to whom Gen. Larry Platt was when I walked past the throng surrounding him Sunday morning. But I did piece things together once I heard the phrase "Pants on the Ground'' repeated about 37 times in a span of 45 seconds by the fans who were busy posing with him and taking his picture, as if he were MC Hammer in his prime.
The Vikings brought Platt to the game as a good luck charm of sorts, and he actually performed his big hit in a team meeting Sunday morning. It was Brett Favre, of course, who last week did a locker room version of the song following Minnesota's win over Dallas.