NEW ORLEANS – For most of the 2009 regular season, the New Orleans Saints marched up and down the field like some sort of futuristic army of unstoppable robots, swiftly and ruthlessly overwhelming overmatched opponents. They were a team propelled by coach Sean Payton's innovative, aggressive gameplans, Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees'(notes) relentless efficiency and an opportunistic defense built to prey on desperate foes forced to play from behind.
Then the playoffs began, and suddenly the Saints' defenders got to confront the perils of life in the fast lane, destined to face a daunting gauntlet of prolific passers more accomplished than their own. First came two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner(notes) and the Arizona Cardinals, then three-time MVP Brett Favre(notes) and the Minnesota Vikings. And after Sunday's thrilling, 31-28 overtime victory over the Vikes at the Louisiana Superdome in the NFC championship game, all the Saints have to do to win their first-ever title is defeat New Orleans native and four-time MVP Peyton Manning(notes) and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
"Think about this – we had to go through two [future] Hall of Fame quarterbacks to get here," Saints linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) said in the team's jubilant locker room Sunday night. "Now, we've got to play another one to get to where want to get to. Hey, to get to the top, you've got to beat the best."
Well, evidently, the Saints do – the way perhaps no other team has before. As roads to NFL fulfillment go, it's tough to top this one laced with speed bumps of epic proportions: Warner, coming off one of the greatest games of his career; Favre, ditto; and now Manning, who threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns Sunday in leading the Colts to a come-from-behind, 30-17 victory over the New York Jets in the AFC championship game.
In other words, no matter what happens in Miami two weeks from now, no one will be able to accuse the Saints of having reached their first Super Bowl the easy way.
Led by an aggressive, unremitting defense that on Sunday forced a season-high five turnovers, New Orleans literally smashed its way to the Ultimate Game. For the second consecutive week, the Saints left a legendary passer bruised, battered and contemplating retirement.
Whereas Warner, 38, was temporarily knocked out with a chest contusion in the Cards' 45-14 divisional-round defeat at the Superdome the previous Saturday, Favre, 40, fought through arm, wrist and ankle injuries to play every snap. Given that the Vikes had the ball for 82 of them, compared to 55 for the Saints, that meant a lot of pain, albeit for much gain (475 yards to be exact, to New Orleans' anemic 257).
"No doubt about it – we came out really kind of hoping to knock the [expletive] out of Brett, and I felt we did that," said Saints linebacker Scott Fujita(notes), who fell on the ball after a bobbled exchange between Favre and halfback Adrian Peterson at the New Orleans 10 with 56 seconds left in the first half to preserve a 14-14 tie. "But that [expletive] is tough. He kept coming back at us. He's incredible."
The Saints' defense didn't just manhandle Favre, who twice took shots that resulted in unnecessary-roughness penalties and was hit early and often. New Orleans also levied punishment on Peterson, who in addition to the muffed exchange with Favre put the ball on the ground twice and was fortunate that neither ended up in a Saints player's hands; rookie wideout Percy Harvin(notes), who lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter that set up the touchdown that put New Orleans up 28-21; and veteran wideout Bernard Berrian(notes), who coughed up the ball inside the Saints' 10 with 9:45 remaining.
Fresh off a Saturday night pep talk from Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, the Saints' defenders played with a physical ferocity that belied their status as the NFL's 25th-ranked unit during the regular season and earned repeated roars of appreciation from 71,276 equally juiced-up fans at the Superdome.
"Anytime a quarterback gets hit 15 times, his timing is going to be messed up," said defensive end Will Smith(notes), who forced Harvin's fumble for the men in black. "He's going to be worried about getting hit instead of just getting the ball off."
Yet Favre (28 of 46, 310 yards), amazingly, avoided being sacked and summoned one of the more valiant performances of his career. When he led Minnesota on a seven-play, 57-yard touchdown drive to tie the game with 5:03 remaining in regulation, then got the ball back at his own 21 with 2:37 to go following a Saints three-and-out, it looked like all of the franchise's shameless groveling for his services would pay off with the Vikings' first Super Bowl berth since the 1976 season.
Before that drive, the Saints' first-year defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, gathered his players on the sideline and told them he'd be unleashing the full force of his fury. This was hardly surprising. A decade ago, in the same role for the Tennessee Titans, Williams helped spur a franchise to its first Super Bowl berth by tormenting then-Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell(notes) (now Brees' backup with the Saints) with a barrage of blitzes.
All week long, Williams had impressed upon his players the importance of going after Favre. In the words of Pro Bowl free safety Darren Sharper(notes), "We're gonna try to kill the head, and the body's gonna die."
Yet after the Saints went up 28-21, Williams suddenly went soft, sitting back in a Cover-Two zone for the majority of the next two drives.
"I spoke to him on sideline," Smith recalled. "I said, 'Gregg, I think movement hurts [Favre]. We've gotta come after him.' He had wanted to change it up a little bit and he went to the Cover-Two, but sometimes change backfires. So he [changed back]. He told us, 'Listen, guys, we're gonna pressure him the rest of the game. We're not gonna let him sit back and pick us apart. We're gonna make him make the perfect pass.' "
Sure enough Favre, as is his nature, was caught trying to be too perfect at a time when a more conservative approach might have sufficed.
After a pair of pretty completions to Berrian (for 10 yards) and Sidney Rice(notes) (for 20), followed by Chester Taylor's(notes) 14-yard run to the New Orleans 33, it was all set up for Favre to close out the victory with 1:06 remaining. Even after the Saints snuffed out a pair of runs for no gain, Minnesota was still looking at a 51-yard field-goal attempt, but a miscommunication following a timeout with 19 seconds remaining led to an unconscionable 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, pushing the ball back to the 38.
Flushed out of the pocket on third-and-15, Favre probably could have run for at least a few yards to set up a plausible field-goal attempt. If he was reluctant to take on further punishment, that was understandable. Less comprehensible was Favre's decision to throw back across his body and over the middle toward Rice, who never had a chance.
Cornerback Tracy Porter(notes) stepped in front of the receiver and picked off the pass – it was Favre's second interception of the second half – and Minnesota never got the ball back. The Saints won the toss in overtime, Brees drove them to the Minnesota 22, and kicker Garrett Hartley(notes) crushed a 40-yarder through the uprights, provoking sighs of relief up and down the state of Wisconsin and a party in the Big Easy that made Mardi Gras look like a company picnic.
A week from now, the "Who Dat?" Festival will migrate to South Florida, where the Saints will arrive as underdogs (betting lines opened with Indy as a four-point favorite) hoping to make Manning run for his life the way his father, Archie, did during most of his 11-plus seasons as New Orleans' starting quarterback.
That's not likely to happen – Peyton is a master at making teams pay for blitzes, and if the Saints are going to stop him from winning a second Super Bowl in four seasons, they'll likely have to play even better on defense than they did on Sunday while recapturing that machine-like efficiency on offense.
So much for The Big Easy.
"That's a tough road to go through to get that Lombardi Trophy," Sharper conceded. "But that's the hand we've been dealt. If nothing else, after these last two games, we're very prepared."
And a pair of Canton-bound quarterbacks are scattered in their wake, wondering if they want to come back out for another round.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Considering the context, the caliber of the opposition (particularly unparalleled cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes)) and the patience and proficiency he displayed under pressure, Manning's performance on Sunday was one of the best of his career. Yet as tempting as it was to marvel over the majesty his 26 for 39, 377-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception effort, Manning would tell you it was the equivalent of a bruising halfback fighting for tough yards behind a rugged offensive line. The man is a grinder, and this was a performance with roots dating back to the offseason and extending through post-practice throwing sessions and hours upon hours of extra film study. With top wideout Reggie Wayne(notes) stuck on Revis Island and Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark(notes) (four catches, 35 yards) also somewhat neutralized, Manning leaned on young receivers Pierre Garcon(notes) (11 catches, 151 yards, one TD) and Austin Collie(notes) (seven catches, 123 yards, one TD), who were prepared for this moment largely because of their quarterback's exacting day-to-day demeanor. Last August, when discussing his negative reaction to the offseason upheaval to Indy's coaching staff, Manning insisted that, to him, a productive offseason leads directly to victories months down the road. "The stuff you're doing in mid-March, April and May – that's when you're doing the things that win you football games in the fall," he said. Collie, a rookie, had a career high in receiving yards Sunday – think about that. And Garcon? For the second consecutive playoff game, he looked like Marvin Harrison(notes) in his prime. Remember in "Pulp Fiction" when Tim Roth's character learned that "garcon means boy"? As of Sunday, it officially means "man." Meanwhile, after catching just three passes for 55 yards, Wayne wrote, via text, "I'm just [expletive] wait'n on my turn." I have a sneaking suspicion that the Louisiana native and former University of Miami star's turn will come on Super Sunday against the Saints.
• The Jets might not have lived up to the hype created by their bodacious rookie coach, Rex Ryan, but they can stride proudly into the offseason after an impressive playoff run. New York followed up unlikely victories at Cincinnati and San Diego by coming into Indy and taking a 17-6 lead over the Colts, an advantage that caused stressful flashbacks of playoff flameouts for every Indy loyalist, and probably a bunch of players and coaches, too. And if rookie Shonn Greene(notes), the hottest halfback in the playoffs, hadn't gone out in the second half with a rib injury, New York might have been able to hang in the game even longer. It's not often that a team can lose eight times in a season and be considered a strong contender for a title the following year, but that's the way it'll be played in the Big Apple, and Ryan, bless his quotable heart, will do nothing to extinguish the excitement. Put it this way: When the Jets and Giants move into their new stadium next fall, there's no question which team will be the marquee attraction. And though things change rapidly in the NFL, it appears the Jets have a big, fat window of opportunity to do some damage with Ryan in charge.
• I've taken Favre to task in the past, specifically for the way he behaved toward the end of his time in Green Bay. And I've now covered three playoff games in the past six years in which Favre threw a brutal interception that triggered his team's demise – the ugly lob he served up in an overtime defeat to the Eagles in January of '04; the shady sideline pass he floated, also in OT, in the Pack's defeat to the Giants in the ‘07 NFC championship game; the one that Porter picked off at the end of regulation Sunday. Yet my overall impression of his performance against the Saints: He was a warrior, and he was the main reason the Vikings had a chance to win. For all the abuse his 40-year-old body took, Favre hung tough and kept slinging it, and some of the throws he made were downright tremendous. The 30-yard pass to Bernard Berrian with 11 minutes remaining, which fell between defenders Randall Gay(notes) and Porter and gave the Vikes a first down at the New Orleans 20, was one of the most exquisite balls you will ever see delivered, and there were plenty of other Canton-worthy moments. Favre said after the game he wasn't ready to make a decision about his future – and, realistically, I'm not sure had he announced something, I (or any of you) would have believed him, anyway. I agree with Favre's declaration that he has nothing to prove, and I can understand how he'd want to segue into a reality that doesn't include the type of physical beating he took on Sunday. But I'd love to see him come back: He's still playing at an exceptional level, and he came very, very close to taking his team to its first Super Bowl in 33 years.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Last year, after the Vikings' season ended with a home playoff defeat to the Eagles, one Minnesota player told me that "our sideline was in total disarray." Coach Brad Childress publicly took issue with that assessment, and to his credit things seemed to run a lot more smoothly once Favre became the team's quarterback this season. Yet when Vikings fans spend the next seven months – and possibly a lot longer than that – mulling over the missed opportunities from Sunday's game, they'll remember the unconscionable 12-men-on-the-field penalty with 19 seconds left in regulation that knocked Minnesota out of realistic field-goal range and presaged Favre's third-and-15 interception. In his postgame news conference, Childress blamed the transgression on fullback Nafufahu Tahi, who didn't come off the field like he was supposed to after a change of play calls. Maybe so, but such confusion reflects upon the head coach, for better or worse, and the fact that it happened coming out of a Vikings timeout made it even worse. (It also meant that the Vikes, upon discovering that there were 12 men in the huddle, were unable to avoid the penalty by signaling for a timeout, because that would have caused an infraction for back-to-back timeout calls.) It could also be argued that Childress, because of his determination not to leave the Saints with any remaining time, was overly conservative upon getting the ball back at his own 21 with 2:37 to go. Still, the bottom line is that with one less man in the huddle on third-and-10 from the 33, there's a very good chance that Favre would have either handed off the ball, completed a short pass or safely thrown it away, and Ryan Longwell(notes) would have trotted out onto the field with a pretty decent shot at winning the game in regulation.
• For a rookie quarterback playing three road games against teams featuring poised veteran passers, the Jets' Mark Sanchez(notes) had a terrific postseason. He was a big reason the Jets took a 17-6 lead over the Colts on Sunday, and his numbers (17 for 30, 257 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) were better than most of us had a right to expect. So I have a very high opinion of the kid, and I realize this is quibbling. However, when New York got the ball back with 1:06 remaining and a 13-point deficit, needing a miracle to get to Miami, Sanchez was painfully gun-shy. Intercepted on the previous possession, Sanchez threw four passes – all short, underneath balls to receivers in the middle of the field – sandwiched around a clock-killing spike, and the game ended with the Jets 63 yards from the end zone. In that situation, don't you have to go back and let it rip and pray for something crazy to happen? I know, I know: It almost certainly wouldn't have mattered. But if you're going to dump the ball off as what's left of your season withers away, you might as well just take a knee.
• When the NFL decided to move this year's Pro Bowl from Hawaii to Miami and to stage it the week before the Super Bowl, I thought it was a lousy idea. Now that the switch is upon us, my opinion has changed slightly – it was a terrible idea. Many players obviously agree, judging by the amount of them who've elected not to play in the game, citing injuries real or exaggerated. Now comes the news that, with Manning's removal from the AFC roster (as with all Super Bowl participants), the Jacksonville Jaguars' David Garrard(notes) is going to the Pro Bowl. Yes, David Garrard, the eighth choice in the voting among AFC passers. Tom Brady(notes) and Philip Rivers(notes), the players (along with Manning) voted onto the team originally, withdrew because of injury, as did alternates Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and Carson Palmer(notes). That means the Texans' Matt Schaub(notes), the Titans' Vince Young(notes) and Garrard will be the three guys representing the AFC, and let's all pray that they stay healthy between now and Sunday. Otherwise, we might be seeing the most surreal sight of all: JaMarcus Russell(notes) in a red-and-white jersey, waddling into the huddle in all his aloof splendor. (Yeah, that was a joke. At least, I truly hope it was.)
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Who Dey! No, not "Who Dat?" the Saints' fans' ubiquitous cheer of choice. I get that – it's a Cajun-sounding thing. What I can't wrap my head around is why Bengals fans have adopted the nearly identical "Who Dey!" chant as their mantra. Is it an ode to Cincinnati's substantial Cajun population? Personally, I prefer my own, newly adopted version of the chant: Who is that? Who is that? Who is that, there, that is going to defeat the University of California Golden Bears?
2. How Peterson, who (as any of us who have made the mistake of shaking his hand can attest) has the strongest grip in human history, has suddenly turned into the most conspicuous fumbler in his profession. He lost the ball twice on Sunday, scrambling forward to recover one of the fumbles, and also failed to gain possession on the muffed red-zone exchange just before halftime that was dubiously credited as a Favre turnover. So, basically, a man who ran for 122 yards and three touchdowns had a nightmare of a game, completing a season in which his fumbling overshadowed his brilliant running ability. Seriously, how did this happen? When I quoted an NFL scouting director before the '07 draft comparing Peterson to Eric Dickerson, I didn't realize the comparison extended to fumblitis. Peterson has a great chance to join Dickerson in the Hall of Fame someday, but if he doesn't get a grip – literally – he could go down as Wendell Tyler.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
OK, so the Saints were about to play the biggest home game in the history of their franchise, in a city that has as awesome a musical heritage as any in America – if not the most awesome. How many artists with New Orleans ties would have been thrilled to sing the national anthem, and would have made it completely memorable? The Neville Brothers? Harry Connick Jr.? The Funky Meters? Marcia Ball? Cowboy Mouth? Deacon John? Fats Domino? Allen Toussaint? Irma Thomas? Rockin Dopsie? I could go on, and on, and on, and on. … Yet instead of any of those accomplished musicians – some of whom, realistically, were probably at the Superdome, or within a few miles of the stadium – the powers that be trotted out reigning "American Idol" winner Kris Allen, the most insipid singer on earth. Gee, I wonder why that was. Could it be that Fox, which broadcast the game, also is the home to "Idol" and convinced the NFL to do it in the name of promotional harmony? Why yes, I believe that is the only possible explanation, and the good people of New Orleans should have been disgusted. Yet I have a feeling they got over it once Hartley's field goal went through the uprights – and many of them hit the streets and celebrated into the night at establishments featuring acts far more entertaining than Allen's canned tripe.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"No doubt about it"
– Text Sunday night from the Vikings' Longwell, on whether he'd have made a potential 51-yard, game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.
"Let's [expletive] do this!"
– MMS text Sunday afternoon (complete with a photo of a baby making a fist, alongside the Saints' Fleur-de-lis logo) from former Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley(notes).