Coming up with a motivational tool is huge for NFL coaches, particularly on the eve of an important game. Last Saturday night, before the biggest game in the 43-year history of the Saints, New Orleans coach Sean Payton produced a doozy at the team's downtown hotel. As the players settled in for their last team meeting before the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, the lights dimmed, Aerosmith's Dream On started playing at a Superdome-decibel level, and on the video screen at the front of the room great moments in sports history went by in rapid-fire order.
Babe Ruth homering, Michael Jordan scoring, Pete Maravich floating, Roberto Clemente fielding, Tiger Woods fist-pumping, Eddie Robinson coaching, Wayne Gretzky scoring, Jim Valvano leaping, Larry Bird shooting, Muhammad Ali punching, the Bears Super Bowl--shuffling, Doug Flutie passing, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team celebrating—on and on, as goose bumps rose to the pulsating chorus: "Dream on, dream on, dream on...."
And when the lights came up, there was Ronnie Lott, a four-time Super Bowl champion. Payton had invited the Hall of Fame defensive back to speak to his players before the season, at which time Lott told the Saints he could "smell greatness in the room." Smell greatness T-shirts were promptly distributed to the players. Now Lott stood before them holding one of the purple baseball bats each player had received that night as a reminder to hit the Vikings hard on Sunday. Lott tapped the bat in his hand, staring intently at the players, and said, "What I wouldn't give to have the chance to go out there, just one more time, to do what you're going to do tomorrow. To become a champion again."
"It's something I'll never forget," free safety Darren Sharper, 34, would say later. "Ronnie's the epitome of greatness in our game, and for so many reasons on and off the field, this was our chance for greatness—to seize the moment. It may never come again."
Twenty-four hours later it was carpe diem for New Orleans. The unforgettable 31--28 victory over the Vikings that sent the Saints to their first Super Bowl won't be stored in the NFL Films vault for its artistry, but it'll go on the top shelf for take-your-breath-away moments as well as mystifying ones. It surely was the first game in league history to be decided in part by a penalty for 12 men in the offensive huddle. It featured 40-year-old Brett Favre getting beaten like Rocky Balboa by the New Orleans defense, playing his guts out and throwing yet another unfathomable interception that cost his team a chance to win a landmark game. It was the perfect illustration of will and drive winning out over what was probably a better team and certainly a more careless one.
What's more, the triumph capped a lovefest between the city and the team that began in 2006 with the hiring of Payton and the signing of quarterback--community institution Drew Brees just months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and left tenuous the Saints' future in the town. "This is for everybody in the city who had homes that used to be wet," an emotional Payton said after the game. "This is for New Orleans."
What followed was one of the wildest celebrations (non--Mardi Gras category) in the history of the city. A police officer on crowd-control duty said the Saints "are the cause of everything good here right now." One fan, 33-year-old Brian Boyles of New Orleans, said, "This is a unifying moment I don't think any of us will ever forget. For so long it seemed like this wasn't a real franchise. I remember when Mike Ditka did the press conference in Ricky Williams dreads, and we were a joke. Now we're all just shocked that we have a really good team."
It wasn't karma or voodoo that put the team on the path to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, where the Saints will play the AFC-champion Colts on Feb. 7. It was the four-year union of Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. In the win over Minnesota, running back Pierre Thomas (99 rushing-receiving yards and two touchdowns) and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele—a pair of undrafted free agents picked up in 2007 and '08, respectively—played smart and physical in critical moments. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, thought to be damaged goods when he was acquired in a trade with the Jets in '08, had a monster game (five tackles, an interception, two passes deflected, one forced fumble, one fumble recovered and heady signal-calling). And, of course, there was Brees, who didn't have one of his typically sharp games but did throw three touchdown passes, had zero turnovers and was sacked only once by a ferocious pass rush. "I was very specific about my goals for this game," Brees said outside the locker room afterward. "Taking care of the football was Number 1 for me today, and if I could do that against this defense, I thought we'd have a good chance to win."
Brees looked out on the field at Favre moving the Vikings and scoring 28 points through the first 55 minutes and enjoyed the quarterback duel, but he wasn't happy just to be a part of it. "I'm staring out at Brett—one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and one of the most competitive quarterbacks ever—and I just thought, It's [the Saints'] time. It's our destiny, for our team and our city. This is one of the reasons I came here, obviously. And we had this feeling: We weren't going to be denied."
But they almost were. With the game tied at 28 and almost five minutes to play, the Saints went three-and-out for the seventh time (tying a season-high for the top-scoring team in the league), allowing the Vikings to go to work at their 21 with 2:37 left. A hobbled Favre, who had been taken down high-low by Ayodele and defensive end Bobby McCray late in the third quarter ("I thought I broke my ankle," Favre would say later), then led his team on what would prove to be a bizarre final series of their season.
Adrian Peterson, who had rushed for three touchdowns but also had a hand in three fumbles, ran the ball on first and second down, producing only two yards. It looked as if Minnesota coach Brad Childress were playing for overtime—a risky move because if the Vikings didn't win the coin flip and gain first possession, they might not touch the ball in OT. Childress said later that his goal was to either end the fourth quarter with a score or keep the ball away from the Saints so they wouldn't get another shot in regulation. But the two-minute warning had come between Peterson's carries, and New Orleans quickly stopped the clock again with 1:52 left, forcing Minnesota's hand on third down. Now the Vikings would have to go to the air. But the next three plays—two Favre passes followed by a 14-yard run by Chester Taylor—produced three first downs and 44 yards. And when it was third-and-10 at the Saints' 33 with 19 seconds left, Minnesota called a timeout.
The noise in the dome was deafening for most of the night—the New Orleans Times-Picayune decibel meter measured the din as approaching jet-engine level at this point—and for one of the few times in the game Minnesota had a mix-up in communication before play resumed. There was an extra fullback, Naufahu Tahi, in the huddle. On the New Orleans' side of the ball, the alert Ayodele motioned one of the officials over and said, "They've got 12 men in the huddle." (An extra man in the huddle is illegal because the offense has the advantage of altering its lineup when it comes to the line without the defense receiving the same benefit.) The penalty pushed Minnesota from its 33-yard line (about a 50-yard field goal attempt for reliable Ryan Longwell) to the 38, slightly out of the kicker's range.
On third down at the 33, Childress would have called a running play and left the game up to Longwell. After the ball was moved back five yards, Childress needed five to 10 yards.
The Saints were lined up in man coverage when Vilma noticed the Vikings were in a formation he thought would result in two wideouts running pick plays—pass routes designed so that receivers cross paths in an attempt to bump the coverage men off the routes. At least one receiver would come open, Vilma figured, so he quickly changed the defensive call. "[Defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams trusts me to change calls like that, which I appreciate," Vilma said afterward. "So at the last second I changed us into Cover Two." The new coverage allowed cornerback Tracy Porter, aligned in the zone up the right seam where Sidney Rice was expected to run, to watch Favre's eyes instead of running with Rice and tracking only the receiver's motions. "I saw Brett locked onto Sidney," Porter said. "I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time."
As the play unfolded and Favre rolled right, New Orleans took another calculated gamble. Some defensive coordinators would tell their players to spy a passer moving out of the pocket, making sure he doesn't turn into a runner. Not Williams. He told his team not to worry about Favre's running the ball. "Brett doesn't run," the free safety Sharper said. "We all knew that." With the Saints hanging back, Favre could have easily run for five to seven yards, setting the ball on the right hash mark for a winning field goal try. "I should have run," he said later.
Favre's pass was a bullet, but to the wrong man. Porter made the interception (the Vikings' fifth turnover of the day), ending Minnesota's golden opportunity—and, as it turned out, its season.
With the Saints winning the coin toss in overtime, Favre could only stew on the sideline, wishing for another chance as New Orleans drove to the Vikings' 22. Then rookie Garrett Hartley ran out to attempt the winning field goal. "Just imagine there's a fleur-de-lis between the two goal posts," Payton told Hartley, referring to the team's logo. Hartley's 40-yard kick was perfect.
After the game Favre seemed to feel sadder for his 10-year-old daughter, Breleigh, who last summer had encouraged him to come out of retirement again and keep playing, than he did for himself. "I'm sure her heart's broke," he said, pausing. "Of course, so is mine."
A mile down Poydras Street from the Superdome, at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Payton was entertaining a gathering of family, friends and the famous, as he usually does after home games. He so loved the Saturday-night video presentation to his team that he couldn't resist showing it to the group at the restaurant. Singers Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett were there, as were some of the players and even one of Payton's old high school coaches from Naperville, Ill. After the video ended, Payton beamed like a proud father. He nodded in acknowledgment to Ronnie Lott, standing in the back of the room, just taking it all in.
The Saints were on their way.