Greg Garber, ESPN.com--MIAMI, FL--Many football fans, leading with their head, viewed the Indianapolis Colts as the better team coming into Super Bowl XLIV. But when all the multi-colored confetti had rained down on Sun Life Stadium, after the New Orleans Saints took down the favored Colts 31-17, the game turned out to be about heart. After the Saints won their first National Football League championship--43 years after they played their first game--they talked about the once-ravaged city they represent.
"We play for so much more than ourselves," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees with his brown hair matted to his forehead. "We played for our city. We played for the entire Gulf Coast region. We played for the entire Who Dat nation that has been behind us every step of the way." Brees referenced trying to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina--and a football franchise, too. Burn those bags. Put the S back in front of those Ain'ts. These Saints, finally, are Superb. "It means everything," Brees said. "We're here because of their strength and everything they fought through here the last few years. They've given us so much support, so we owe it all to our fans."
Peyton Manning may have been the regular-season MVP, but on this given Sunday, Brees was better. Lifting his team from a 10-point deficit, Brees completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns to tie the Super Bowl record for completions on his way to winning the game's MVP honors.
We have seen Manning and Reggie Wayne make so many plays over the years, at first it was hard to grasp what had happened when cornerback Tracy Porter stepped between them. Hurried by the Saints' blitz, Manning fired a pass to the slanting Wayne, but Porter broke first. He gathered the ball in and sprinted toward the goal line as the pro-Saints crowd roared. Manning, the only one who could have stopped him, gave a half-hearted effort.
It was a resounding 74-yard interception return with 3:12 left to seal the Saints' victory.
"Made a great play," a red-faced Manning said after the game. "Made a great play. Corner made a heck of a play." Later, when the interception was raised again, Manning was similarly terse. "Certainly disappointing," he allowed. "Very disappointing. Disappointing."
Porter's interception was the finishing blow, but head coach Sean Payton's bold call for an onside kick to open the second half might have been the play that changed the game. "We were really excited when he made the call," said linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who was on the field when teammate Chris Reis recovered the ball. "That changed everything." The ball, kicked expertly by Thomas Morstead, bounced off the hands of the Colts' Hank Baskett to set up the Saints' offense. "We're going to be aggressive, Payton said. "We'd seen the onside kick all week and guys executed it well. It turned out to be a big change of possession."
Instead of defending against Manning--who finished the game completing 31 of 45 for 333 yards--the Saints drove 58 yards for a touchdown. Running back Pierre Thomas caught a 16-yard scoring pass from Brees and, very suddenly, the Saints had their first lead of the game. The Colts are perceived as a one-man team, and the fact that their running game was ranked dead last in the NFL this season only underlines their dependence on Manning.
But nursing a tenuous 3-0 lead in the first quarter, the Colts put together a muscular drive worthy of a champion. Starting on their own 4-yard line, Manning went not to Wayne or Dallas Clark, but to running backs Donald Brown and Joseph Addai. Brown caught a short flip from Manning and turned it into an 11-yard gain. Addai roared through a huge hole and went 16 yards, and after an incomplete pass, another 11. On third-and-1 at the Saints' 49, Addai broke a would-be tackle by linebacker Jonathan Vilma and made safety Darren Sharper look silly. Twenty-six yards and three plays later, Manning hoisted one to Pierre Garcon for a seemingly simple 19-yard touchdown.
Actually, it was vintage Manning. Cornerback Jabari Greer, hurt on a previous play, was on the sideline. Garcon turned backup safety Usama Young completely around and floated into the end zone with a comfortable margin. The Colts, who tied the longest scoring drive in Super Bowl history, led 10-0 with 36 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Saints came back with a spirited drive and a 46-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley. It might have been more, but Dwight Freeney reached out and touched Brees on third down, forcing the Saints to kick. Freeney's right ankle, the subject of rampant pre-game speculation after a week of zero practice, was not enough to render him ineffective. He bullied left tackle Jermon Bushrod, pushing him backward, then snagged a handful of Brees' jersey for a sack. Squandering a first-and-goal at the Colts' 3, New Orleans failed on fourth down. After stopping the Colts with a three-and-out, the Saints stabilized the game when Hartley drilled a 44-yard field goal to make it 10-6 as time ran out.
The expected shootout was developing into a surprising defensive standoff. Naturally, the second half began with an onside kick. Payton, after getting wrecked on two conservative goal-line run calls, went for the trick play out of the box and with just over three minutes into the second half, after Thomas' touchdown, it was a very different game--13-10, Saints.
But, of course, Manning is Manning. Completing two critical balls to tight end Clark along the way, Manning presided over a terrific drive. Addai, spinning a full 360 degrees, ran 4-yards for a score with 6:15 left in the third quarter to put the Colts back on top 17-13.
The Saints came right back and Hartley's 47-yard field goal closed the gap to one point. Indianapolis moved down the field, picking up a fourth-and-2 at the Saints' 46 when Wayne caught a 14-yard slant. But just when it looked like the Colts would distance themselves, Vilma (seven tackles, two for losses) made two terrific plays--a tackle for a loss followed by some deft coverage of Colts wide receiver Austin Collie down by the end zone. Matt Stover's 51-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
Brees was again masterful, moving the Saints down the field. He hit tight end Jeremy Shockey with a two-yard touchdown pass on the right side to give the Saints a 22-17 lead with 5:42 to play. New Orleans was then compelled to go for two. Lance Moore had the ball in his grasp over the goal line momentarily before it came loose. The play was called incomplete, but Payton challenged the call and replays showed the catch was good for a two-point conversion, and the Saints had a seven-point lead.
With the Colts driving, Porter made his game-changing play and the team that once trailed by 10 was up by 14--for good.
The Colts drove, but Manning's last-gasp pass, a seemingly quite catchable throw, glanced off the hands of Wayne near the endzone, and the Colts were formally done.
Some 700 miles away from Sun Life Stadium, it was All Saints Night on Bourbon Street as the French Quarter rocked with something approaching Mardi Gras intensity. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Saints will be honored in a parade on Tuesday.
"Just to think of the road we've all traveled, the adversity we've all faced," Brees said. "It's unbelievable. I mean, are you kidding me? Four years ago, whoever thought this would be happening? Eighty-five percent of the city was under water. Most people left not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back, or if the organization would ever come back.
"We just all looked at one another and said, 'We're going to rebuild together. We are going to lean on each other.' That's what we've done the last four years and this is the culmination in all that belief."