Like their city, Saints pull together

BY Alex Marvez • January 24, 2010

The work of an entire community was needed to rebuild here after Hurricane Katrina.

Almost 4 1/2 years later, it took another show of unity for the New Orleans Saints to top the Minnesota Vikings and reach their first Super Bowl.

Crediting an overall team effort and deafening Louisiana Superdome crowd for Sunday’s 31-28 overtime victory isn’t a cliche. There wasn’t any other way the Saints could have weathered one of the gutsiest performances of Brett Favre’s storied career and won Sunday’s amazing NFC Championship game.

Just ask Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

“You can draw so many parallels between our team and our city,” said Brees, who has helped spearhead New Orleans’ revival on and off the field through his stellar play and fundraising efforts. “We’ve had to lean on each other to survive and get to where we are now. It’s special and unbelievable.”

From a defense that punished Favre with hard hits and forced five turnovers to a Brees-led offense that had nine different players touch the football to a solid special teams effort capped by Garrett Hartley’s 40-yard game-winning field goal, no individual players could be identified as the game’s clear-cut heroes. Pro Bowl selections like Brees (three touchdown passes), free safety Darren Sharper (team-high 11 tackles) and middle linebacker Jon Vilma (one interception, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble) had their shining moments. But some of the biggest contributions came from Saints who rarely grab headlines.

Hartley — who was told by coach Sean Payton to aim for the fleur-de-lis painted on the seating tier squarely between the north goalposts — made the biggest kick of his two-year NFL career. Courtney Roby returned the second-half kickoff 61 yards to set up a touchdown. The offensive line allowed only one sack against Minnesota’s vaunted front four. Cornerback Terry Porter sent the game into overtime by intercepting Favre inside Saints territory with seven seconds remaining in regulation. Running back Pierre Thomas was told by teammates that he borrowed Reggie Bush’s “hops” when leaping for a first down on fourth-and-one on the game-winning drive.

And there were Bobby McCray and Remi Ayodele. The two defensive linemen sent Favre limping to the sideline with a sprained ankle with a crushing high-low hit late in the third quarter. Ayodele then celebrated by doing his own version of the old Nestea plunge while Saints defenders swarmed Vilma for having intercepted Favre on the play.

“There was such balance in who stepped up and made plays,” Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “It carried us into Miami.”

Even so, Favre and running back Adrian Peterson almost kept the Saints from making that trip to Super Bowl XLIV. A gimpy Favre never missed a snap and finished with 310 passing yards and one touchdown; Peterson added three rushing touchdowns and 122 yards on 25 carries.

But ultimately, that duo and several teammates made too many critical mistakes for Minnesota to overcome. Peterson was yanked for a second-half stretch after fumbling twice. At least Peterson recovered both. Two of his teammates — wide receivers Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin — weren’t as fortunate when losing the handle. Favre also mistimed a handoff to Peterson that resulted in a lost goal-line fumble to end the first half.

Those miscues nullified the lopsided advantage Minnesota had in total yardage (475 to 257) and time of possession (36:49 to 27:56).

“I feel they didn’t win the game but we lost it,” Peterson said. “You can’t turn the ball over like that and expect to win.”

Noise from the Saints-record 71,276 fans in attendance also hurt the Vikings. Minnesota’s defensive line couldn’t get the same jump on the snap it gets in the Metrodome, where the Vikings finished as the NFL’s only undefeated home team in 2009. The crowd also could have contributed to the confusion that derailed Minnesota’s final drive. Just before Favre’s interception, the Vikings were penalized for sending 12 players into the offensive huddle. The five-yard loss knocked Minnesota just out of field-goal range on third down. Favre then pressed and threw across his body on the pass snared by Porter.

“I probably should have ran it,” Favre lamented.

Favre said he was undecided about his NFL future but that the decision wouldn’t take “months.” Take that for what it’s worth. But if Sunday’s game was the end, Favre left the field for one last time with yellow-and-white confetti shooting into the air as Saints players and staff celebrated all around him.

During his postgame victory speech, Payton mentioned the Katrina damage to the Superdome and how “this stadium used to have holes in it and be wet. Not anymore. This is for the city of New Orleans.”

They couldn’t have experienced this moment without each other.