By Don Banks
February 05, 2010


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- New Orleans might be the underdog in Super Bowl XLIV, but no team featuring the top-scoring offense and one of the most takeaway-hungry defenses in the NFL should be considered a long shot to win the game played on football's grandest stage. Here are my five best reasons why Saints fans should have hope that the Colts can be conquered:

1. The Saints have the karma factor on their side in this Super Bowl. Good karma doesn't win championships on its own, but it sure doesn't hurt when a team believes it's playing for something larger than itself -- like a city still rebuilding from an epic natural disaster, a loyal and long-suffering fan base, and an entire region that has adopted it as its own. Call it hokey or trite, but there is something about this Saints team that has genuinely bonded with the people of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region.

And that bond has imbued Sean Payton's players with a purpose that goes beyond just trying to win for the sake of earning a shiny new piece of jewelry to put on their fingers and participating in a victory parade. The citizens of New Orleans have drawn strength from their football team since it returned in 2006, and the relationship has been reciprocal in that respect. I've gotten to know two or three Saints players a little bit over the past three or four years, and to a man they speak about the people of their city and their resiliency with something approaching reverence.

That can't possibly do anything for the Saints except elevate their title quest to a mission of sorts. Post-Katrina New Orleans is a different place, and these Saints want to bring a Super Bowl title home to show the rest of the nation that the city has survived its ordeal and begun to prosper once again.

You can find karma in a lot of things, but I can't help be reminded that before Katrina struck such a devastating blow to New Orleans in August 2005, the storm had cut a swath across South Florida on its way to category 5 status. South Florida is where the Saints will face the Colts Sunday night in the biggest game in New Orleans franchise history. Maybe that's as close to full circle as this saga could possibly get.

2. The turnover battle is absolutely pivotal in the postseason, and the Saints consistently win in that department. Check out this stat: In this year's playoffs, teams that either win or tie in the turnover category are 10-0, with a plus-19 advantage. The Saints have thrived on taking the ball away from their opponents, with first-year New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams preaching his aggressive, ball-hungry style of play.

Minnesota turned the ball over five times in last week's NFC title game against New Orleans, and Arizona coughed it up twice the week before against the Saints in the divisional round. New Orleans is plus-6 in the playoffs in turnovers (seven takeaways, one giveaway), the best of any team in the postseason. Indianapolis is tied for second in the playoffs with a plus-3 turnover mark.

That's just a continuation of the success the Saints had during the regular season when it came to forcing their opponents to turn the ball over. New Orleans was plus-11 this season in turnovers, third best in the league behind only Green Bay and Philadelphia. But the Saints' 39 takeaways (26 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries) was the second most in the NFL, barely trailing the Packers (40). And New Orleans converted a league-high eight of those takeaways into defensive touchdowns, leading to 141 points -- tied with Green Bay for the most points off turnovers.

3. The Saints pass rush is getting it done. Don't get caught up in the sack totals. New Orleans didn't sack Brett Favre once in the NFC title game, but the Saints defensive front pummeled him nevertheless, and maybe, just maybe, all that game-long abuse was why Favre didn't pull it down and run for those five crucial yards he could have had on the play he wound up throwing the tide-turning interception late in regulation.

Same story with Kurt Warner and the Cardinals the week before in the divisional round. The Saints sacked him just once, but they pressured and harried him consistently and made him look every bit of his 38 years, especially when defensive end Bobby McCray blindsided him with that block on an interception return.

I know what you're saying: They'll never get to Peyton Manning that way. No. 18 will just three-step drop them when the pressure comes, hitting his hot read on a little slant or seam pass, and away the Colts will go. And it could happen that way, because nobody in the game is better at anticipating the rush and counteracting it than Manning. Indy's 13 sacks allowed were a league low this season.

But just because we can't remember the last time we saw a pass rush really get to Manning doesn't mean it can't happen. Think back to the Super Bowl of two years ago. Before that game, did anyone think the Giants defensive front would destroy New England's offensive line and lay waste to Tom Brady all day? But it did, and it was the key to New York's monumental upset of the unbeaten Patriots.

If the Saints' pressure schemes can produce a few early hits on Manning, those "remember me hits'' that Williams talked about last week might end once again paying late-game dividends for New Orleans.

4. The Saints have more leg. Both Super Bowl teams are using kickers they didn't start the season with, and both the Colts' Matt Stover and the Saints' Garrett Hartley converted nine of their 11 regular-season attempts, for a 81.8 percent success ratio. But if this game comes down to a long-distance field goal, I like New Orleans' chances with the 23-year-old Hartley, rather than Indy's with the just-turned-42-year-old Stover, who has been in the NFL (20 years) almost as long as Hartley has been alive.

Stover is a crisp 5 of 5 on field goals this postseason, with a long of 44 yards. He's deadly accurate, but he's not going to give the Colts the option of converting from long range. Stover hasn't made a field goal of longer than 49 yards since 2006, when he was still a Raven. He's been a fine replacement for the injured Adam Vinatieri -- the greatest clutch kicker in NFL playoff history -- but you never know how his lack of leg strength at this point in his career might limit Indy's offense.

Hartley, on the other hand, is still riding the high from the biggest kick of his two-year NFL career, that game-winning 40-yarder that came 4:45 into overtime against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. He's only 2 of 2 in this year's playoffs, from 43 and 40 yards, and has only once attempted a field goal of 50 yards or more in the regular season or playoffs (coming up short from 58 yards at Washington this year).

But Hartley is an impressive 24 of 26 overall in his NFL career, and he did nail a 54-yarder in the New Orleans preseason opener this year against Cincinnati. So he has the distance, and we already know he can make a pressure kick in a spotlight moment. In a close game, Hartley could prove crucial for the Saints in getting a leg up on the Colts.

5. The Saints are just plain due. That counts for something, right? The Colts won the Super Bowl a mere three years ago, and in the very same stadium they'll play again this Sunday night, so there's a sort of been there, done that air to their return trip. Take those three years, add another four full decades to it, and that's how long the New Orleans franchise has waited for its turn on the Super Bowl stage.

The Saints and the Super Bowl are even sort of linked in history, because both were born in 1967, with Super Bowl I between the Chiefs and Packers taking place that January in Los Angeles, and the NFL's latest expansion team kicking off in New Orleans that September. But they had never formally met until this week, when the Saints arrived in South Florida for Super Bowl XLIV.

It's true that first-time Super Bowl teams historically don't fare all that well in the big game. The past three Super Bowl newbies -- Arizona, Seattle and Carolina -- all lost to Super Bowl veterans in their first appearances. But this NFL decade did start with an exception to that rule, when the first-time Baltimore Ravens wiped the floor with the two-time Super Bowl winning New York Giants, 34-7, in Tampa in January 2001. Like this year's game, that showdown was in Florida, too, so New Orleans fans have to believe we're in store for bookend results when it comes to first-timers knocking off the more experienced Super Bowl club.


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