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The Aints Have Left the Building

Ladies and gentleman, the Aints have left the building.

After forty-three years, twenty-seven losing seasons, and just two postseason wins before 2010, the New Orleans Saints are the champions of the NFL.

Drew Brees may have won the MVP, but give the game ball to coach Sean Payton.

Payton challenged his team to go out and take over the game. At two key junctures, he dared his players to make plays, and they went out and grabbed hold of their opportunity.

New Orleans isn't a grind-it-out town. It's a take-a-risk, go-big-or-stay-home kind of place. It figures that if the Saints were going to win a Super Bowl, they wouldn't do it by playing it safe.

With 1:55 to go in the first half, down 10-3, Payton went for it on fourth-and-goal at the Indianapolis one. The safe play is to take the three points and cut the lead, but that also means kicking off and giving Peyton Manning the ball with two timeouts and possibly decent field position. The gamble looked like a loser when Pierre Thomas was stopped for no gain by Gary Brackett and Clint Session.

But with the Colts backed up against their own end zone, Manning had to be careful and kept the ball on the ground. The Saints called time before a third-and-one with fifty-one seconds to play, stuffed Mike Hart, called another timeout, and got the ball back with enough time for four plays followed by the field goal they'd passed up two minutes earlier.

After the lengthy halftime break, the Colts were poised to take advantage of Manning's legendary ability to adjust to the defensive scheme. But the Saints took their second gamble, an onside kick bunted to where the retreating Colts return team had been. Hank Baskett tried to get back for Indianapolis, but the ball bounced off him and into a scrum where New Orleans came up with it. They promptly marched fifty-eight yards for their first touchdown and a 13-10 lead.

By the time Indianapolis went back on offense, it had been seventy minutes of real time since Manning's last completion. The Colts struck quickly, two big passes to Dallas Clark highlighting an eleven-play, 76-yard drive. They now led 17-13, but had scored their last points of the day.

Everything the experts knew about these two teams proved to be wrong as the game unfolded. The Colts were the team expected to go on extended drives, moving the ball through the air and eating up the clock. The Saints would have to get pressure on Manning, hit him as often as possible. The Indianapolis offense would get sharper and more efficient as the game wore on, thanks to Manning's ability to read and learn. The Colts' speedy defense would be vulnerable to power rushing from the Saints. And the Saints would have to force turnovers to have a chance.

Instead, it was the Saints who held the ball for almost the entire second quarter, running twenty-eight plays while the Colts had two three-and-outs. Manning was mostly untouched and rarely hurried; Dwight Freeney , playing on the world's most famous ankle, had the game's only sack. The Colts ran well for much of the game, their line opening big holes for Joseph Addai. And the Saints only got an intermittent boost from their own running game, depending almost entirely on Brees and the pass.

The biggest surprise was how New Orleans got stronger and sharper as the game progressed. Brees had a dream game, tying the Super Bowl record with his 32 completions (in 39 attempts). On the fourth quarter drive that put the Saints in front to stay, he hit seven different receivers with his seven passes, matching the much bigger wideouts against the small Colts corners. He then hit an eighth different receiver with the pass for the two-point conversion, a play that required a close replay review before reversing the on-field call.

Colts coach Jim Caldwell faced few in-game decisions on the Colts sideline, but one set up the Saints' go-ahead touchdown. On fourth and eleven on the New Orleans 33, he sent Matt Stover out to attempt a 51-yard field goal. The 42-year-old Stover had not made a 50-yarder since the 2006 season; a pooch punt or even a Manning pass would have been a better choice, as the missed kick gave the Saints the ball on their 41.

And the turnover story? There wasn't one - until the Saints ordered one more gamble, sending six men after Manning on third and 5 at their own 33 with 3:24 to play. Manning read the blitz, but Tracy Porter read Reggie Wayne's hot route beautifully and returned the interception for the clinching touchdown.

New Orleans had rallied from a 10-0 deficit for a 31-17 victory. Cancel the discussion about whether Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback ever. Cue the jazz bands and the post-Katrina recovery stories. Thank Drew Brees for coming, and caring; hail Sean Payton as the big new coaching star.

Eight days to Mardi Gras. Who dat thinks dey gonna sleep this week?

 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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