NEW ORLEANS, JAN. 2 -- This city has been wild before, but never wild card. Mardi Gras is taking new form here, as the New Orleans Saints march into the playoffs for the first time in their 21-year history Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings after a big and easy 12-3 regular season.

The Superdome has become just another late night spot here, another Fat Harry's or Pat O'Brien's. When playoff tickets went on sale, the party simply moved to the Superdome, where fans parked their sleeping bags under the ticket windows. All available tickets were gone in fewer than three hours.

"Ever since I came here, I knew once we had a winning season and made the playoffs, the town would go nuts," said guard Brad Edelman, in his sixth season from Missouri.

The feared San Francisco 49ers were 13-2 and won the NFC West, but the Saints beat them at Candlestick with a blocked punt. If the truth be known, the Saints' offense isn't much, what with running back Rueben Mayes averaging 2.3 yards in his last 31 carries. Quarterback Bobby Hebert is home-grown, but not a great thrower. His passes rarely get intercepted, though, and that's saying a lot.

If the truth be known, in fact, the Saints play offense with their defense and special teams, and play defensively with their offense. That works, apparently.

So, this is what the Vikings are up against Sunday in the Superdome, as the NFC playoffs kick off. Stunned last weekend by the Washington Redskins, the Vikings, who lost three of their last four games, needed help to reach the wild-card game, and rooted for Dallas to knock off the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cowboys obliged, which made for terrific irony.

The Vikings had defeated the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in an out-and-out brawl, and Vikings tackle David Huffman had stated afterward: "What a bunch of clowns. They're not America's team." He also went on to call Cowboys President Tex Schramm "a classless jerk."

Of course, after that big Dallas victory over St. Louis Sunday, Huffman did the human thing and retracted, saying the Cowboys "are a class organization from top to bottom."

Actually, the Vikings (8-7) figure they should be here, considering their strike team went winless. Tommy Kramer will start at quarterback and claims he's as healthy as he's been this year, though that's not saying much. Kramer has finished just one of his last 21 starts, and has an arm problem that tends to wobble his passes. Backup Wade Wilson shredded the Saints for 361 yards in a 33-17 Vikings victory last season, but that's last season.

The Saints, who have won nine straight, do have some genuine stars, with Mayes off to the Pro Bowl for the second straight season. On defense, linebacker Sam Mills and cornerback Dave Waymer are Pro Bowlers. Edelman is their best blocker, and Morten Andersen is undoubtedly the NFL's top kicker (28 of 36 field goals, 37 of 37 extra points).

But the club MVP has to be Coach Jim Mora, who gets excited about twice a year, and usually not at football games. As the Saints steamed through their schedule and recorded their first-ever winning season, Mora refused to take his team seriously, reminding everyone there was a long way to go.

Antonio Gibson, a former player for Mora's USFL Philadelphia Stars, remembers him always being this way, even when the Stars dominated that league. In other words, complacency is out of the question here, and Saints players refuse to toot their own horns.

"I think this team is not a team that's satisfied with just getting in the playoffs," said Waymer, who lived through the Saints' 1-15 season of 1980. "Even though this is our first time and we've had some success this year, I think the guys are feeling very good. They're screaming on the inside is what it is. They're kinda holding everything down and we're postponing all celebrations until it's all over.

"But, listen, I always wanted be here when this happened, and I'm so glad I'm still here."

The Saints have team unity aplenty, and perhaps that's why they've been able to record come-from-behind victories the last two weeks. In fact, they've won four times this year after trailing by as many as 10 points.

The offensive line is very close-knit, and they all go hunting together on their off-days. Mayes, no dummy, rewarded his guys up front by buying each and every one a brand new shotgun for Christmas.

"Hey, if I bought my guys shotguns," said Vikings runner Darrin Nelson, "they'd kill each other."

The Vikings have lost three of the last four times they've led after the fourth quarter two-minute warning. They are 6 1/2-point underdogs Sunday, and probably won't be able to hear themselves think.