New Orleans revels in its relationship with the Saints

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

NEW ORLEANS -- Audrey Wilson steered her taxi through the heavy traffic on I-10 in New Orleans down the exit ramp toward Poydras Street, running in front of the Superdome. It was early Monday afternoon, still five hours before the hometown Saints were to play the New England Patriots in one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the NFL season.

The cab driver was wearing a black and gold Saints cap and jacket. Beads and a plastic gold model of the Saints' fleur-de-lis emblem hung from her cab's rearview mirror. As Wilson's taxi inched toward the Superdome, she gazed at the thousands of people already tailgating outside the stadium, many of them stationed under the highway overpass to keep dry on the rainy afternoon as they sipped their drinks, grilled their shrimp and ate their jambalaya.

"They've been out here since 4:30 this morning," Wilson said. "I told my husband, if the Saints make it to the Super Bowl, they'll have to shut this city down."

Wilson lives in the city's Eighth Ward, and life has had more than its fair share of hardships since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans more than four years ago. Yet she spoke hopefully about the city's recovery, and was particularly enthusiastic about the Saints.

"They're going to win it," she said. "They have the team to do it. They're due this year. If they weren't winning, there wouldn't be people coming into the city like this."

The bond between the storm-ravaged city and its football team was on display in the months after Katrina, when the Saints spent the 2005 season as NFL nomads based in San Antonio and playing games there and in Baton Rouge. It was on display on the emotional night in 2006 when the Saints returned to play in the repaired Superdome, and for the rest of that season as they made a stirring run to their first NFC title game before losing in Chicago.

And now it is back on display as the city continues its rebuilding efforts while investing more of its hope than ever in the Saints, who are steamrolling the league.

"These people have been through so much, and they're looking for leadership," said Doug Thornton, a senior vice president for SMG, the management company that runs the Superdome. "They're looking for inspiration. And this football team is providing that."

The Saints will bring an 11-0 record into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. They and the also-unbeaten Indianapolis Colts have been the NFL's top teams this season, and the Saints' Drew Brees has emerged as one of the front-runners for the league's most valuable player award. As a banner held by fans outside the Superdome on Monday said: "This Ain't Yo Momma's Saints."

A special bond

The days of the team being a collection of lovable losers, of the 'Aints and fans wearing bags over their heads, seemed increasingly remote late Monday night, when Brees had finished throwing five touchdown passes to five different receivers and compiled a perfect 158.3 passer rating as the Saints overwhelmed the Patriots, 38-17.

A day that included a three-hour pregame show on a local television station neared its end with the Saints fans in the Superdome putting even more exuberance than usual into their trademark chant: "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the noise levels in the Superdome during Monday's game reached as high as 119 decibels, just shy of the 120 decibels associated with a thunderclap or a jackhammer.

"It only gets nuttier each time in the 'dome," Brees said.

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