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Saints, city of New Orleans hit the jackpot after years of heartache


How do you possibly top the two-week party that this party-loving city is about to throw itself, all on behalf of its beloved Saints, the former chumps turned champs? New Orleans in the Super Bowl still sounds so utterly strange to the ear, but for a franchise born the same year (1967) The Big Game actually began, it's about time the Saints get a turn to play on the NFL's grandest stage.

There really is no other story in the NFL quite like the relationship between the Saints and their city, and that love affair was never on display quite like it was Sunday night at the Superdome for the NFC Championship Game. Fittingly, it wasn't always a pretty picture, but New Orleans somehow found a way to survive, 31-28, in overtime, edging a Vikings team that self-destructed as much as it was beaten.

If nothing else, New Orleans and its football team knows how to survive.

"It's unbelievable,'' said Saints quarterback Drew Brees of the victory that advances New Orleans into the first Super Bowl of its 43-year history. "I think you can draw so many parallels between our team and our city. But, in reality, we probably lean on each other, in order to survive and in order to get to where we are now.

"The city is on its way to recovery, and in a lot of ways, it's come back better than ever. But as a team we've used the strength and the resiliency of our fans. It feels so good to know that we've given our fans a championship. An NFC championship, but we've got another championship for them that we're going after here in two weeks.''

By now we all know the story of what this town and this team went through during Hurricane Katrina and its ugly aftermath. New Orleans and its football team weathered the storm, and Sunday night was the big payoff -- long, long overdue. These Saints have one more goal, and that will be to beat the Colts in Miami on Feb. 7. But maybe nothing will ever be quite as sweet as this win, which came via so much hard work, resiliency and even a bit of good fortune.

This was New Orleans' moment. And maybe only the people who have made it through these past four-plus years of recovery can appreciate the view from this particular mountaintop.

"I still feel like I'm floating,'' Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said a good 45 minutes after kicker Garrett Hartley drilled the game-winning 40-yard field goal with 10:15 left in overtime. "It means a lot to me, after coming in here four years ago, not long after Katrina, when this place was still a mess and people really didn't have much of anything. They just hoped they'd have a team that might come back.

"Really, tonight was the culmination of everything, for this team, this whole city, for this region. For everything to come together [Sunday] the way it did. I couldn't be happier. I couldn't be prouder, and I'm honored to go represent the people of New Orleans in the Super Bowl.''

Granted, they won't be sending a tape of this game to Canton for instant enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It wasn't a classic in the sense that two great teams played their best against one another and made spectacular, breathtaking plays.

The most lasting memory of this game will be just what the win meant to this city and this team, and the only play that really stands out will be Brett Favre's crushing interception late in regulation, with the Vikings in field goal range and positioned to go for the win. But Saints cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in front of receiver Sidney Rice and picked Favre off at the Saints' 22 with seven seconds remaining, breathing new life into New Orleans's Super Bowl dreams.

Poor, Favre. Twice in three years now he has thrown away an NFC title game in the worst possible way imaginable. His interception cost the Packers in overtime against the Giants in 2007, in his last game for Green Bay, and now history has repeated itself in cruel fashion.

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"Things were serious, and we knew we needed to make a play,'' said safety Darren Sharper. "I was waiting for someone in the stands to put some of that New Orleans mojo on them [the Vikings]. And in the end, they did.''

Somebody must have done some work on behalf of the Saints, because the sloppy Vikings committed five turnovers to New Orleans' one, and Favre's final blunder was totally uncharacteristic of his turnover-free play for most of this season.

"We were shocked,'' Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of Favre's second interception. "We didn't think he'd throw it. We thought he'd throw it away and they'd kick the field goal and go from there. But he threw it across his body, and I guess he figured he'd be able to get it in there. And he didn't. Fortunately for us, he didn't get it in there.''

Porter told me he read Favre's eyes the whole way on the interception, and admitted he was surprised No. 4 took such a risk with the game on the line.

"We knew he liked to scramble, and he's a guy who can throw across his body,'' Porter said. "That's a cardinal sin for most quarterbacks, but Brett's a Hall of Fame quarterback with a strong arm and he's been making that throw pretty much his whole career. He thought he could fit that one in, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.''

Who knows if Favre will really retire this offseason or not, but for now, Porter is the answer to the following trivia question: Who caught Brett Favre's final NFL pass?

"I didn't even look at it like that, but that's kind of funny,'' Porter said. Not to Vikings fans it isn't.

Porter wasn't the only Saints player in the right place at the right time Sunday night. Vilma intercepted Favre once and recovered a fumble. Fujita recovered a fumble, as did defensive tackle Remi Ayodele. The Vikings came into play without a three-turnover game this season, and then put more than their pants on the ground -- there were loose footballs all over the Superdome turf.

"Basically what it came down to was we were the most physical team,'' Fujita said. "That ball was on the ground a whole lot, and overall when we put in the film [Monday], I think we'll see we out-hit that team. We created more turnovers and that's why we won the game. That's the most important stat in football.''

The Saints did what they had to do to survive against the Vikings, and now comes the fun part: Two full weeks to revel in the accomplishment, in a city where revelry has been raised to fine art. New Orleans has a champion to toast, and there's still one more big party to come, on Super Bowl Sunday.

"This means so much,'' veteran Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "This whole week has been unbelievable, just the electricity in the city. So many people are so excited. I think the fans were more nervous than we were. It just means so much to them. I know they're going to be partying for the next two weeks until the Super Bowl.''

That'll be just fine with everyone in New Orleans. What's a couple more weeks to wait after 43 years? The Saints are going to the Super Bowl, and Mardi Gras might have to take a backseat for once this year.