I don't like, generally, to make my Lehigh blog ALL about the Saints (or any of the other pro teams I root for passionately), but when something comes along worth writing about and celebrating, you better believe I'll mention it here. For this long-suffering Saints fan, it's something amazing and unbelievable. Rooting for this franchise has finally - finally! - paid off in some way, and I have to tell the world.
It may not be written as such by many in this way by many East Coast or West Coast sportswriters who can't find themselves giving a crap unless a New York, New England or Oakland team is involved - but, dammit, it was one of the best NFC championship games ever played. There are a lot of people out there already whining that the Saints got lucky or - laughably - were aided by the officials. But that's to sell the Saints, the fans of New Orleans - and also the Vikings themselves - short. This game, by any unbiased definition, was one for the ages. (more)
Before I get into the game, let me get into the reasons as to why I'm a Saints fan. Just to prove that I'm not a bandwagon jumper, I did actually write this and this in 2007 when the Saints and Eagles played in the playoffs in 2007. (And after the loss to the Bears, I wrote this, which makes me laugh to this day). For those too lazy to click to the old blog postings, I'll net it out below.
I grew up in the New York area, but moved overseas for about seven years of my life. As a youngster, my allegiances changed quite a bit - Giants, Jets, Redskins. While living overseas in high school, however, I finally settled on the Saints as my team. Why the Saints? Maybe because in 1986 they were on the rise; maybe because I had a lot of respect for coach Jim Mora and the Philadelphia Stars of the old USFL; maybe because I loved the "Dome Patrol" and their take-no-prisoners 3-4 defense; or maybe simply because my fathers' jazz musician contemporaries liked the team. As a result of this, I picked up on the Saints just in time to enjoy their first-ever winning season and playoff appearance.
Going to college at Lehigh didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the Saints. Living in Bethlehem didn't mean I became an Eagles fan by osmosis. "Who Dat" branded me as different to my residence hall and to my friends. My friends were probably mostly bemused by it at best, or annoyed by it at worst, but they had no doubts that I was serious about it. (I think buying the only LB Pat Swilling jersey in a mall in Danbury, CT certainly helped.)
When the Saints lost to the Eagles 36-20 in 1993 (after the Saints' third straight epic meltdown in the playoffs with a 20-7 lead) I got many calls from ecstatic Eagles fans rubbing it in my face. Needless to say, I was no Eagles fan then.
Throughout the 1990s I still went to the sports bar to follow my team, through the end of the Jim Mora era ("We couldn't run the ball, we couldn't stop the run, we couldn't complete a pass... We sucked.") to interim head coach Rick Venturi holding the steering wheel before Ditka nearly ran the whole thing into the ground. (Ditka made me very close to giving up on the Saints for good. Do NOT talk to me about Ditka.)
But the Saints started to put lowlights of the Ditka era behind them just about the time I met my wife - a Philadelphia girl through and through. Right before we got married and moved back to the Philadelphia area, the Saints won their first-ever playoff game after RB Brian Milne recovered that muffed kickoff by the Rams to knock Kurt Warner out of the playoffs. (Unknown rule #1 about the Saints: They own Warner's ass.)
My wife made it very clear that she was (like all good Philadelphia natives) rooting for the Eagles first, the Flyers next, and didn't care about anything else. In a nutshell, I could keep Lehigh and the Red Sox. But this was going to be an Eagles family - our son was going to be dressed in Eagle green, not Saints gold. That was fine with me. I like the Eagles - it's hard to dislike a team that holds preseason training camp at your alma mater. I like the Eagles most of the year.
But when the Saints play the Eagles, I still find myself rooting for the Saints. (Just a lot quieter.)
Fast forward to this season, and the game this weekend. During the regular season as a Saints fan, what wasn't there to love? QB Drew Brees was making mincemeat of every defense that faced him. They allowed me to have one up on my Giants, Jets, Eagles and Redskins fans - they beat them all. (Though I'm still wondering how the Saints managed to beat the Redskins.) The only blemish was the Dallas game, which started the unfortunate three-game skid to close the year.
Last week, I did weigh in a couple paragraphs about the Saints' 45-14 destruction of Kurt Warner - The Sequel. But I was nervous about the Saints strapping it up against the Vikings. A little-known fact about the boys in Gold is that the Boys in Purple have always had their number. From the first-ever playoff appearance in 1987, where WR Anthony Carter went wild against the Saints' "fearsome" defense in a 44-10 romp, to the Saints' "reward" for beating the Rams in 2000, a visit to the Vikings' home for a 34-16 defeat. This piece by the Baton Rouge Advocate puts the entire ignominious Saints/Vikings history in perspective, but let's just say I was fully aware of Unknown Rule #2 about the Saints: The Vikings own our ass. (Brett Favre or not.)
I entered this game fully expecting a tough matchup. And when Favre and the Vikings marched down the field and punctuated it with a 19 yard power run by RB Adrian Peterson, I knew we'd be in for a game.
My nerves would soon be jangled further: after Brees would find RB Pierre Thomas on a screen pass that would turn into a pretty 38 yard TD run, Favre struck right back with another methodical drive ending in a perfect 5 yard TD pass to TE Sidney Rice. It sure didn't look like the Saints "D" was going to be stopping Favre and the Vikings - and even early on I had that old, familiar sense of dread.
But the Saints offense would just continue to counterpunch. They didn't always look as pretty on offense as they had all year - DE Jared Allen and the rest of the Viking front four made sure of that -but somehow they would find the end zone again, this time to WR Devery Henderson after Brees found a way to struggle to get some time to throw and Henderson finally got open for a split second.
Just as the FOX team went to the sideline to brag about the Vikings' special earpieces to let them hear their signals while drowning out the crowd noise, the deafening roar seemed to really be getting to the Vikings. At least two times Favre had to call time outs just to get signals straight, and it seemed to throw the timing off even on routine things like handoffs. Many have excoriated the Vikings for giving the game away with turnovers, but a lot of those fumbles from the QB/RB exchange could have been noise related. When RB Reggie Bush muffed a punt deep in the red zone that was recovered by the Vikings, I shrugged my shoulders and started to curse the skies about the Saints' bad luck. But after Peterson's fumble - where the deafening Superdome crowd was definitely a factor - LB Scott Shanle's recovery ended up being a huge boost, thanks to a giant assist from the crowd.
The whole game felt like a prizefight. When the Vikings scored, the Saints countered. In the second half, when the Saints finally went ahead, after the huge runback by RS Courtney Roby set up RB Pierre Thomas' 9 yard TD run, the Vikings would counter with another methodical drive ending with an AP touchdown run to tie it. One team would turn it over, then the other defense would force a big turnover to swing momentum back. I don't think I've ever seen an NFL game that has had so many huge momentum shifts - and as a Saints fan, man, was it exhausting!
I think I started to breathe again when DT Remi Ayodele returned that fumble squirting around on the turf, ending in that Brees-to-Bush play where Reggie made a heady play to get the ball around (and touch) the pylon. (Is it my imagination, or does a significant number of RB Reggie Bush's highlights come at or around the pylon? That has to be the fourth one I've seen this year, at least.)
At this point, both QBs had endured amazing punishment. While Brees and Favre officially hadn't been sacked much, they were getting creamed almost every play. Favre looked hurt midway through the third quarter, but - just like a prizefighter - kept getting up, even limping noticeably in the huddle. Brees didn't limp, but he wasn't much better - his passes didn't look crisp, making Joe Buck and Troy Aikman wonder if his throwing hand was hurt.
But I knew Favre had it in him to pull this one out, injury or no. I had seen it so many times before. By the time AP got his third TD of the game to tie the game at 28, I started to have that sinking feeling. I started to stand - anything to break the (what seemed to be) inevitable bad luck by the Saints that would lead to the third playoff loss to the Vikings.
When Brees-to-Henderson was two yards short of the sticks, I thought that was it. Favre would get the ball to field goal range, and that would be it. I had seen it too many times before - Favre winning games in the last two minutes, and the Saints blowing it.
While the Saints defense battled, it sure didn't start well when WR Bernard Berrian escaped a tackle and just barely got a 10 yard gain to get a key first down. It wasn't a bad play by the Saints, just a great play by Berrian to move the sticks. Then Favre would find TE Sidney Rice again, and I was bracing myself for disaster. The Vikings were in field goal range. A long way away, but these were the Vikings. A 50 yard FG was makeable - especially when the Viking Curse was involved.
First down. The Saints stuff RB Chester Taylor for no gain. Time out Saints. The crowd just keeps up the decibel level. (How do they keep that up the entire game?)
Second down. Again, the Saints stuff Taylor for no gain. The Saints refuse to die. Refuse to damn die!
Third down - and the Vikings make the goof of the century with 12 men in the huddle. This makes a makable 50 yard FG into a much more dicey 55 yard try.
Favre. Rolls right. Somewhere in his brain - muscle memory, perhaps - he thinks of himself as the "king of comebacks". (Arguably, he has 43.) All he needs to do is to go forward six yards, perhaps seven, and slide while covering the ball with both hands. But he doesn't do that. "I'm Brett Favre. Favre doesn't slide. Throw it to Rice. There he is - over the middle. Get it high, only where he can get it - go for the jugular. Just like I've done my whole career."
The ball comes out. I rose. Not the best-thrown ball - and then, I see DB Tracy Porter step in front of the low throw and save the Saints.
Favre made a mistake, but Porter made the play. He saw the low throw, and saw precisely what he needed to do - anticipate, and get both hands under the ball. The announcers seemed to put all the blame on Favre - a knock on him that he can't get it done anymore, that maybe he's a bit too arrogant. That may be - but Mr. Porter deserves a boatload more credit than anyone his given him.
I'll remember the coin flip in overtime, the pass interference call, the gutty drive, the leap by RB Pierre Thomas to get the first down, and the 40 yard FG by K Garrett Hartley. But the image I'm going to have of this game forever is going to be Porter's interception - stepping in front of that low pass, both hands under it, and then taking off in a fit of adrenaline, giving the Saints a chance to win the NFC championship.
It's incredible. It makes me misty-eyed. It may always do so, I don't know. But it sure is today.
Almost immediately after the game, the media weighs in. The Saints got lucky. Brett Favre lost the game rather than the Porter and the Saints winning it. The Saints are a "team of destiny". Give me a freakin' break. Any moron watching this game could tell you this was a war between two great teams. I'd bet if the Jets won in the same way over the Colts, we'd have seen no end of gushy stories about how great QB Mark Sanchez was under fire. Instead, the Saints get this patronizing coverage that they somehow got lucky and caught Brett Favre on a bad day.
For me - a Saint fan that has been waiting 26 years for this, an NFC Championship - that's fine with me. If the Colts treat the Saints the same way everyone else is, they'll be in for a rude awaking in Miami - all the way to a "Saints Super Bowl Champions" shirt two weeks from now.