There was no one individual that single-handedly won for the New Orleans Saints organization its first NFC Championship as the historic victory in the Superdome was as much a team effort as any this season.
Franchise quarterback Drew Brees racked up a modest 197 yards, connecting on 17 of 31 passing attempts, a relatively pedestrian 55% completion rate that is below the NFL record of 70.6% he set in the regular season. On the typically impressive side, Brees threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions against one of the league’s best defenses. Brees also didn’t turnover the ball on the ground either, recovering one of his two fumbles while Pro-Bowl guard Jahri Evans saved the other fumble the quarterback coughed up.
Speaking of Evans, he and his fellow offensive linemen did an excellent job protecting Brees against the Vikings’ fearsome foursome, surrendering only one sack against the NFL’s best defense in that category.
Running back Pierre Thomas, the Black and Gold’s discount-store superstar, once again showed that the team’s front-office dodged a bullet when they were unable to put together a Draft Day trade to mortgage the team’s future to pick up Ohio State running back Beanie Wells.
Thomas ran for 61 yards and a touchdown and caught a pass and bumped and rumbled for 38 yards to the end zone. Thomas’s two best plays of the game didn’t even involve him scoring. Substituting as kick returner for an injured Courtney Roby, Thomas ran back the overtime kick-off for 40 yards. A few plays later, Thomas leaped for two yards on a 4th and 1 that kept the drive alive en route to Garrett Hartley game-winning field goal.
Hartley more than made amends for missing what would have been a game winning field goal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that would have locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
Hartley’s splitting the uprights sent the Saints to the Super Bowl in overtime. The second-year kicker whose season could best be described as star-crossed, having missed the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, claimed he dreamed that he would win the game for his team. So rattled by this vision, Hartley called his father in Texas in the dead of night to share his prophecy.
Since the kicking game has haunted Saints head coach Sean Payton more than any other aspect of the team since he fired kicker John Carney in 2007, Payton couldn’t have been happier or more relieved that the man whose services he decided to retain came through for the Black and Gold after the team decided to once again cut Carney from the active roster.
Finally there was Reggie Bush. Reggie, Reggie, Reggie (no exclamation points).
Looking to work some magic on a punt return late in the second quarter, the celebrithete chose to run when the smart play was to call a fair catch as a Minnesota Viking defender was going full steam ahead in his direction.
Instead of looking like a star, Bush looked like a fool, giving the ball to the Vikings deep in Saints territory, specifically, the home team’s ten yard line. Bush’s name was saved from eternal abomination thanks to a chance fumble recovery two plays later. As a friend of mine texted me during the game, it was the equivalent of getting a call from the governor just as the executioner was about to stick the needle in number 25’s arm.
In the Fourth Quarter, Bush made amends on a short pass from Brees that sent the running back bouncing into the pylon out of bounds. After the play having been ruled only a four-yard gain, short of the end zone, the play was reviewed and declared a touchdown.
Aside from the aforementioned, Bush had an uneventful day, gaining all eight yards on seven attempts on the ground and a 28 yard reception.
And then there was the defense.
The Saints defense forced only four punts. But they forced five turnovers, the most notable being cornerback Tracy Porter’s interception as the Vikings were positioning themselves for a game-winning field goal in regulation.
Prior to Porter’s huge pick, the Vikings, who were on the Saints’ 33 yard line, were penalized five-yards for having twelve men in the huddle.
That penalty likely saved the Saints’ Super Bowl hopes as the Vikings, already in field goal range, would have run the ball and not passed on that play.
In addition to the aforementioned Favre fumble, the Saints defense scooped up two others.
Finally there were those wearing black and gold, not on the field but in the stands.
Having never been in an NFL locker room and not personally knowing any professional football players, I don’t know the true value of so-called bulletin board material. But I can attest to what it does to a rowdy fan base when it is directed towards them.
It’s true after enduring 40-plus years of mostly disappointing play on the field and a natural catastrophe that wrecked the city and, perhaps without an assist from the commissioner’s office and a certain self-interested egomaniac owner in north Texas, almost robbed New Orleans of its team, the Black and Gold faithful don’t require much more nudging to get them on their feet and making noise than being one game away from the Promised Land of pro-football.
But Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress boasted he had a plan to make Saints fans “sit on their hands down there” when addressing the matter of playing in an unfriendly environment.
Motivated with a love for their team and spite for their taunter, the Saints fans never let up. Childress proved he would have been a better heal-wrestler than a smart coach with his challenge to the Saints’ fan-base.
The Saints fans kept bringing the noise throughout the game; the Saints players rewarded them by never giving up and hanging in the game regardless how ominous things looked.
In my preview to the NFC Championship contest, I wrote that the Vikings were a better team but that the Saints would come out with a win. When looking at first downs (Minnesota doubled the Saints), time of possession (Vikings had an eight minute edge), passing yards and rushing yards, the Vikings did indeed play better.
However it was the New Orleans Saints, who played with heart, mojo, determination and a never-say-die attitude, that made the bigger plays and consequently will go on to the big game against Archie Manning’s son in Miami.