High-octane Colts and Saints play for the ring

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    NEW ORLEANS — The calendar says Mardi Gras
    is three weeks away. Not anymore. It started here in the Superdome on a
    magic night that helped erase 43 years of franchise disappointment and
    lift a city that deserved the joy finally savored.

    Fat Sunday.

    The New Orleans Saints are going to the Super Bowl.

    Black-clad fans packed the building in record
    numbers and made sonic noise and chanted “Who Dat!” as festooned
    umbrellas and parasols bobbed in the old N’Awlins style, a city
    celebrating what it had waited for since 1967.

    Hosting their first NFC Championship Game, the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 Sunday night to earn a trip to Miami to face the Indianapolis Colts in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl — XLIV by the NFL’s Roman count.

    It went into overtime. What, like a fandom waiting 43 years couldn’t wait another few minutes?

    “Four years ago, they were holes in this roof,” as coach Sean Payton put it, referencing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “This is pretty special for this city.”

    Sunday meant the greatest victory in Saints’
    history. And it meant a chance for the Colts to reprise the Super Bowl
    win they achieved after the 2006 season, the last SB held in Miami.

    It also meant the league and television and South Florida won, too. It got our dream matchup.

    Sorry, Jets fans and Vikings fans. (OK, sorry Vikings fans. Not so much Jets fans.)

    Saints-Colts might not be the matchup South Florida
    economists and hoteliers preferred. Analysts pointed to Jets-Vikings as
    the Super Bowl that would have made the cash registers ring loudest in
    and around Miami.

    From a football vantage point, though, Colts-Saints is the duel you wanted.

    This will mark the first Super Bowl since the 1993
    season featuring both conference No. 1 seeds and the two teams with the
    best regular-season records.

    In the absence of a team portraying David (that would have been the Jets), we get two Goliaths. Not bad.

    And topping the marquee, we get maybe the greatest quarterback of all time, Peyton Manning, who just won his record fourth league MVP award, and maybe the best QB right now, Drew Brees, who led the NFL in passer rating this season and threw three TD passes in Sunday’s triumph.

    As a side dish, delicious as gumbo: Manning is a child of New Orleans.
    His father, Archie, Saints quarterback back in the bad old days,
    remains a folk hero in this city that must now coalesce to wish only
    the worst for its favorite son’s son.

    The newly minted Super Bowl also offers a contrast in franchises and fandoms.

    The Colts were the royalty in Sunday’s final four.
    Indy has made the playoffs an NFL-best eight consecutive years and won
    the Super Bowl recently enough for the rings to still sparkle.

    The Saints have the opposite history and heritage as
    a club, making them so easy to root for even APART from the Hurricane
    Katrina factor.

    The Saints were delivered to New Orleans in 1967, one year after Miami
    got the Dolphins. But, while we have waited seemingly forever for
    another championship, folks here have waited what must feel like that
    long for even a chance at one.

    A LONG WAIT

    It took the Saints 22 years to achieve their first
    winning record. The first playoff victory didn’t happen until 2000. The
    city so often a Super Bowl host had never played in one. Until now.

    “NOW IS OUR TIME,” proclaimed the local Times-Picayune newspaper, civic pride forgivably overwhelming objectivity.

    A popular T-shirt here read simply: “Our Town. Our Team. Our Time.”

    The idea seemed ridiculous just this past summer.

    Saints in the Super Bowl? The team was coming off
    7-9 and 8-8 seasons. Yet Brees handed out T-shirts to his teammates
    during training camp this past summer with various inspirational
    messages. One read:

    “SB 44.”

    Just that.

    Now, what was ludicrous is 60 minutes of football away.

    How many mediocre teams across the NFL can feel a little bit of hope from the Saints’ one-season catapult?

    Either way Sunday night’s NFC finale turned out, we
    were going to get a Super Bowl that seemed ready for the challenge of
    living up to all the hyperbole and hyperventilating the next 13 days
    will bring.

    Already waiting, after all: Manning and the mighty Colts, who dispatched the underdog Jets with relative ease to spare South Florida
    and suffering Dolfans the ignominy of watching the hated, stinkin’ Jets
    take over the Dolphins’ very own locker room. (And many of South Florida’s transplanted New Yorkers among us are insufferable enough without giving them further cause.)

    With either Saints or Vikings confronting Manning’s Colts, how could the league or TV or South Florida complain?

    With Minnesota, we’d have gotten Brett Favre, the ageless ironman, the 40-year-old marvel who broke all of Dan Marino’s career passing records and still is throwing sparks from his right hand three years after the Packers thought him washed up.

    Oh, and poor Minnesotans would have savored another
    chance, at last, to help salve their long Super Bowl misery. The
    Vikings were 0-for-4 in SBs in the 1970s and haven’t been back since.

    But at least they’d gotten that far, and repeatedly.

    For New Orleans this is all new.

    And there was no mistaking that to anyone inside the
    Superdome, which housed the largest crowd Sunday to ever watch a Saints
    game.

    This was the franchise derisively called the
    “Aints.” Local fans once were the first to wear bags over their heads
    at games. “FLEUR DE LOSERS,” a headline once proclaimed.

    Now, redemption. Who Dat is not a question anymore, but a declarative.

    “Fear the Cheer” is a local expression, with reason.
    Decibels in the dome supposedly reached 130 decibels Sunday night, the
    level of jackhammers and jet engines. The only comparable sound I have
    ever winced to hear at a sporting event is along pit row in Homestead
    during a NASCAR race.

    “Playing the Saints and playing the fans, too,” as Favre had put it. “That’s tough.”

    POWER OF SPORTS

    The Saints, their fans and this city remind us of
    the power of sports as a coalescing force that can knit a community.
    Sports can lift a city. Sometimes, sports can even help mend a city.

    Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, swamping 80 percent of the city in floodwater.

    The recovery goes on, the catastrophe so great that a local television commercial beseeching aid for Haiti earthquake relief proclaims, “If anyone can know what they feel, we can.”

    This was more than a city getting up and over four
    decades of disappointment Sunday night. This was a city celebrating its
    own resolve, and future.

    It would be impossibly melodramatic if it weren’t true.

    Four years ago, this city was drowning. The same
    Superdome that rocked with merry bedlam Sunday housed impossible misery
    then, as an impromptu encampment for the displaced.

    This week, local doctors treated patients while wearing Saints jerseys.

    For New Orleans, a broader sort of healing happened this one night.

    It took 43 years. It was overtime, and past due. It felt like it was worth the wait.

    (c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

    Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

    Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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