By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; D01
The partying in the French Quarter had barely started when the New Orleans Saints began to turn their attention from the thrilling victory they just had crafted in the biggest game in franchise history to the even bigger game that awaits.
After beating Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings in overtime Sunday evening at the Superdome in the NFC championship game, the Saints could begin readying for a Super Bowl matchup with the Indianapolis Colts and another elite quarterback, Peyton Manning.
Not only will it be Manning against his hometown team and the team for which his father, Archie, played, but it also will be Manning against the quarterback who finished second to him in this season's NFL most valuable player voting, the Saints' Drew Brees.
"It doesn't get any easier," Brees said late Sunday night. "Obviously we know what type of team the Colts are, what type of organization they are and have been for a long time. They're a dynasty in their own right. With the season they've had and the season we've had, I can't think of two better teams to meet in the Super Bowl.
"I know there's going to be a lot of story lines, obviously with Peyton being from New Orleans and all those things. But the fact is there's two great teams playing. It should be a heck of a game."
The Saints beat Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in the second round of the playoffs. They beat Favre in the NFC title game. Now they'll have to beat Manning if they're going to secure the first Super Bowl triumph in franchise history.
"You're talking about three future Hall of Famers," Brees said.
It's the first time since the 1993 season that the top playoff seed in each conference advanced to the Super Bowl. The Colts and Saints were the league's top teams all season, with the Saints winning their first 13 games and the Colts winning their first 14 games. It was the first time in NFL history that two teams were 13-0 in the same season.
But the Saints stumbled down the stretch, losing their final three regular season games. The Colts chose not to chase an unbeaten season, with Coach Jim Caldwell sitting down Manning and other key players in the second-to-last game of the regular season to keep them healthy for the playoffs. The Colts lost that game and their regular season finale at Buffalo, and some observers wondered if they and the Saints were vulnerable entering the postseason.
They weren't. The Colts beat the Baltimore Ravens with relative ease in an AFC semifinal and rallied from a first-half deficit to coast past the Jets, 30-17, on Sunday. The Saints beat the Vikings, 31-28, on kicker Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal on the opening possession of overtime.
"It was fate for this team to be playing in the Super Bowl this year," Hartley said. "I'm just honored to be part of it."
A citywide celebration erupted after the game and lasted into the early hours Monday morning. The streets and sidewalks in and around the French Quarter were jammed with people late Sunday night. Traffic was at a standstill, as motorists honked in jubilation and passengers hung out of car windows. One woman with a drink in hand walked boldly up to a police cruiser stopped in the traffic and yelled to the officers inside: "Can you believe it? We won!"
The Saints have been a source of immense civic pride as New Orleans rebuilds from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and now the team is headed to its first Super Bowl. The Saints lost the NFC title game at Chicago to end the 2006 season, their first season back in New Orleans after spending the 2005 season as post-Katrina football nomads, based in San Antonio and playing home games there and in Baton Rouge.
"It's really indescribable," Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. "The people here are so great. What they've been through is so much. We're proud to represent the people of New Orleans in the Super Bowl. . . . My children were born here. I feel like my career was reborn here. When Drew Brees and I first got here, we were just trying to find a way to field a football team."
Said safety Darren Sharper: "Everyone comes up to you on the streets and says: 'Thank you for bringing happiness to the city. Thank you for bringing life to the city.' "
It started when the Saints hired Sean Payton as their coach before the 2006 season, and then he recruited Brees as a free agent. The Saints drafted running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston that spring.
"I'll remember forever that phone call he gave me telling me he wanted me to be their quarterback," Brees said. "I could never imagine then that things would work out the way they have. But we had a dream and a goal then, and that was to reach a Super Bowl. . . . This city is on its way to recovery and in a lot of ways, it's better than ever. As a team, we've used the strength and resilience of our fans. . . . It feels so good to know we've given our fans an NFC championship. We've got one more championship we'll be trying for here in a few weeks."
Said Bush: "I could always see it happening. I knew what type of guys we had. We got to the NFC championship game and we fell short. I thought we were going to come back and go to the Super Bowl the next season. It didn't work out. We fell back a little bit. But we're there now. I knew it was just a matter of time."
Favre's season, remarkable for a quarterback who is 40, ended with an interception in the final seconds of regulation after a penalty for having too many men in the huddle pushed the Vikings out of field goal range. Favre, who was battered by the New Orleans defense all night and looked like the loser of a prize fight afterward, limped through the final stages of the game after suffering an ankle injury in the third quarter. His night ended with him facing another offseason decision about whether to play another season. He said it was too soon to know. Vikings Coach Brad Childress said he told Favre to take a little time and let the emotions of the loss wear off. Sharper, Favre's former Green Bay Packers teammate, predicted that Favre will play next season.
But that's a story line for later. For the Saints, Manning and the next game are ahead.
"Brett Favre is a great story," Fujita said. "But the New Orleans Saints are a better story."
Said Brees: "It's probably gonna be nuts around here for a while."