Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Saints ain’t Aints no more

Sometimes you’re sure life can’t get any worse. You’re ready to holler and throw up both your hands and give up what’s left of your personal ghost. And then somebody — Somebody in High Places — throws you a bone with just enough on it to keep you going, keep you believing in the possibilities of the underdog.

That’s what happened earlier today. In the New Orleans Superdome, the scene of tragedy not long enough ago, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in the NFC Championship, to advance to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, in the Saints’ first appearance there in the 44-year history of the franchise.

Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras is pretty much as automatic a party as this country ever has, but the scene there tonight promises to be wilder, more raucous than Mardi Gras will be. The Saints — for most of two generations the doormat of the NFL — is going to the big show two weeks from now. And the city of New Orleans realizes a shot in the arm that transcends money, pro football bragging rights and other superficialities.

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It was a shooting match for most of the game, with Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Vikings quarterback Brett Favre trading long bombs and spirited sprints out of the pocket. But the Vikings were the victims of mistakes that began in the third quarter and cascaded into a pattern of play that was hard to believe was coming from a playoff-caliber NFL team.

By the end of the fourth quarter, the wheels fell off for the Vikes, followed by the transmission, the brakes and everything but the catalytic converter. Fumbles. Quarterback hurries. More turnovers than a pastry shop. Favre was on the canvas 16 times that day, and was briefly out of the game earlier, due to an injury that looked horrific in the replay.

Favre, gamer that he is, came back into the contest. But just before overtime, the score tied at 28, you could sense something was going wrong when, driving for a decisive score, the Vikings were hit with a 5-yard penalty … for having 12 men in the huddle. The penalty almost certainly took them out of field-goal range, so Favre went with a pass play.

On third-and-15 from the New Orleans 38, Favre, desperate to get close enough to give Ryan Longwell a chance to win the game in last-second fashion, rolled to his right. Then, instead of running for the yardage that might have put the Vikes in field goal range, Favre threw across the field to the left … where the Saints’ Tracy Porter intercepted, sending the game to overtime.

A field goal by the externally unflappable Garrett Hartley, and the Saints were set to go marching into their first Super Bowl.

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“Just wondering if I can hold up, especially after a day like today,” said Favre, battered and ghostly, a man whose tank was drier than empty after the game. “Physically and mentally. That was pretty draining. I am going to go home, a couple of days and just talk it over with the family.”

Was it miscommunication or nerves? Was it performance anxiety, or maybe what Hunter S. Thompson used to call “the fear”? Who knows?

What we do know is as uncomfortable for Vikings fans as it is undeniable for everyone else: While Brett Favre — a top-notch competitor and a man we’ve come to love — wanted that NFC Championship victory, for any number of team and personal reasons, New Orleans needed that victory, needed it deeply for reasons that are plain to anyone who remembers the brutal, chaotic events of five summers ago in the state of Louisiana.

The NFC Championship win is the latest good news for the region. In November, citing “monumental negligence,” U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr., opened the door to an expected torrent of lawsuits against agencies of the federal government, lawsuits representing the first real evidence of justice for human beings needlessly displaced by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The four individuals and one business in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were awarded $720,000 by Duval, resolving a lawsuit brought against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More suits can certainly be expected.

But all that’s on the long come. More immediately, dead ahead, is New Orleans’ second-line dance into the first rank of winning NFL franchises, and the chance to tweak its own salute to the team, to make it a salute to the city the water couldn’t wash away:

Who Dat say Nawlins is finished?
Image credits: Saints logo: New Orleans Saints/National Football League. Saints celebration: Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints. Favre: AP Photo.

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