Eleven years ago today, New Orleans did what some of even their most loyal fans thought impossible and advanced to the Super Bowl. The Saints had little success over their first 42 years of existence, qualifying for the playoffs just six times and having just a 2-4 record in postseason games.
Considered also-rans for much of their history, the culture of the franchise changed in 2006, when coach Sean Payton was hired to lead the team and free-agent quarterback Drew Brees was signed to run the offense.
New Orleans advanced to their first-ever NFC Championship in that first year under Payton and Brees, losing on the road to the Chicago Bears, but would have just a 15-17 record over the next two years. They had the look of something special in 2009, racing out to a 13-0 record behind the NFL's best offense and an opportunistic and aggressive defense.
Brees led the league in completion percentage and touchdown passes (34), throwing for 4,388 yards. He had a wide array to spread his accurate throws to with wideouts Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem, running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, and tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Hot on the Saints' heels as the NFC's best team all season was the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota had a rugged defense of their own and the league's second-highest scoring offense behind New Orleans. The Vikings were led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, who had 4,202 yards with 33 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions in his first year with the team.
Favre had a 1,000-Yd wideout in Pro Bowler Sidney Rice along with game-breakers in receivers Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Minnesota also had the NFL's best running back in Adrian Peterson, who rolled up 1,383 yards and a league-high 18 touchdowns.
These teams seemed on a collision course all season for the NFC title. Despite late-year slumps by both, the Saints lost their last three regular-season games and the Vikings two of their last three, New Orleans claimed the conference's number 1 seed and the Vikings the second spot.
After both squads won their Divisional Round games in a rout, fans would get to see the long-awaited showdown for the right to go to Super Bowl XLIV on the final Sunday of January in New Orleans, LA.
JANUARY 24, 2010 - NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS VS. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The Vikings came roaring out of the gate, taking the game’s opening drive 80 yards on ten plays, ending with a 19-Yd touchdown run from Adrian Peterson. New Orleans responded immediately, going 76 yards on seven plays and tying the game on a 38-Yd touchdown pass from Brees to RB Pierre Thomas. Minnesota kept the pressure on, taking the ensuing possession 73 yards on ten plays and retaking the lead with a five-yard scoring strike from Favre to Sidney Rice.
With the game looking like it was going to be a shoot-out, both defenses finally came alive. Minnesota got the first stop of the contest, forcing a three-and-out from the Saints to end the first quarter.
A physical New Orleans defense was starting to set a tone of their own and forced a three-and-out from the Vikings early in the second quarter. The Saints took that punt and drove 64 yards to tie the game at 14, ending a seven-play drive with a 9-Yd touchdown pass from Brees to Devery Henderson.
Both defenses took over through the rest of the quarter, giving up little ground for the rest of the half. A fumbled punt return by Saints running back Reggie Bush set up the Vikings at the New Orleans ten-yard line with a minute to play in the half. However, the Saints defense set a tone for the second half when they forced a Brett Favre fumble two plays later to preserve the 14-14 tie at the half.
New Orleans sliced through the Minnesota defense on the first possession of the 3rd quarter, taking advantage of a 61-Yd kickoff return from Courtney Roby to drive 37 yards on four plays to take their first lead of the game. Pierre Thomas, who had 139 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, accounted for 19 of those 37 yards and cashed in on a 9-Yd scoring run for a 21-14 lead.
Minnesota responded quickly with an 80-Yd drive on their first 3rd quarter possession, tying the game again on a 1-Yd touchdown run from Adrian Peterson. The third quarter ended at that 21-21 score, with the Saints forcing the Vikings to turn the ball over on their next three possessions but unable to do much offensively.
Minnesota outgained New Orleans in total yardage, 475-257, and doubled their output in 1st downs, but the Saints forced five turnovers and made big plays in crucial moments. New Orleans DE Will Smith forced a Percy Harvin fumble deep in Viking territory early in the fourth quarter.
The Saints quickly cashed in with a 5-Yd touchdown pass from Brees to Reggie Bush and a 28-21 lead with twelve minutes to play. New Orleans gave ground defensively on the next possession, allowing the Vikings to drive inside their 20-yard line. They again came up big, with CB Tracy Porter forcing a Bernard Berrian fumble that the Saints recovered at their own five to preserve their lead.
Favre, who had 310 passing yards, and Peterson, who led all rushers with 122 yards, bullied through the New Orleans defense again midway through the 4th quarter. This time they cashed in, with Peterson scoring his third touchdown of the game with a 2-Yd run to tie the game at 28 with 4:58 remaining. A three-and-out by the Saints on their next drive gave the ball back to Minnesota on their own 21 with 2:37 left and a chance to win the game for a Super Bowl berth.
The Vikings moved the ball 41 yards in seven plays, putting themselves on the fringe of a game-winning field goal attempt with just 19 seconds left. Tracy Porter again made a gigantic play, stepping in front of a Favre pass for an interception that would send the NFC Championship into overtime tied at 28.
New Orleans won the toss and elected to receive. Pierre Thomas, who took over return duties for an injured Courtney Roby, took the kickoff and weaved his way 40 yards on a spectacular return to give his team good field position.
Brees, who threw for 197 yards and three scores on the day, hit strikes to Henderson and Robert Meachem totaling 21 yards and the Saints moved the ball on the ground on a 10-play drive for 39 yards.
With the ball on the Minnesota 22, Sean Payton called on his kicker, Garrett Hartley, for a game-winning field goal attempt. Hartley nailed the 40-Yd field goal, giving the Saints a 31-28 overtime victory and the NFC Championship.
The Saints would go on to defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, with Brees taking home MVP honors in the 31-17 victory.