Saints fans during Sunday's protest parade in New Orleans. (Michael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune via AP)

New Orleans celebrated Super Bowl Sunday largely by pretending it had not arrived. Instead of loading up on game-time snacks or crowding around a television, Saints fans swarmed the city’s French Quarter for a massive “no watch” party and protest rally, capping a second straight week of rage over officiating in the NFC championship game.

Had referees thrown a flag on a seemingly clear pass interference penalty late in the fourth quarter, New Orleans almost certainly would have faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. “It’s a play that should be called,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted last week.

But no such penalty came. The Saints lost to the Rams in overtime. Louisiana is still not over it, and didn’t have much interest tuning in to watch Los Angeles and New England in the NFL’s biggest game.

The city’s major newspaper wasn’t much interested, either. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a blank front page with a single boldfaced headline: “Super Bowl? What Super Bowl?”

“The relationship between New Orleans and the Saints is different than in a lot of NFL cities,” Times-Picayune Editor Mark Lorando said in a phone interview Monday. “We saw it with [Hurricane] Katrina. It’s personal here. The feeling two weeks ago was the Super Bowl was taken from New Orleans. On Sunday, New Orleans took the Super Bowl back.”

Images of the paper’s front page spread quickly through social media after the conclusion of the game Sunday night and into Monday morning. It helped that significant parts of the rest of the country also weren’t as enthusiastic about the game’s result, whether because of the offensive drought (it was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl) or the predictable result (the favored Patriots won their sixth title in 18 years).

New England’s 13-3 win felt plodding and boring at times. Maroon 5′s halftime show didn’t help much, either. In New Orleans, the broadcast earned a 26.2 overnight Nielsen rating, according to the Times-Picayune, the lowest of any metered market. The 2018 Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles drew a 53 rating in New Orleans, according to the paper.

Around the country, the game drew a 44.9 national overnight rating, the worst mark for a Super Bowl in a decade, thanks to the game’s lackluster entertainment value, lack of buzz and perhaps the lingering resentment over the controversial ending of the NFC championship.

One New Orleans attorney had sued the NFL to force Goodell to alter the game’s outcome in favor of the Saints. (The case was dismissed.) A local auto dealer purchased roadside billboard in Atlanta, site of Super Bowl LIII, lambasting the league and Goodell. Plenty of Saints fans threatened to boycott the game.

And midweek, while the Times-Picayune was planning its coverage of the game, sports copy editor Gene Guillot suggested the blank page technique to echo the city’s disgust, Lorando said.

“The way the game worked out, it turned into a perfect way to reflect how New Orleans was feeling,” he said.

How was the town feeling? Mad. And betrayed.

The Times-Picayune has published cheeky front pages before after Saints losses. When the Vikings defeated New Orleans on a last-second pass play in the 2018 NFC divisional round, the so-called “Minneapolis Miracle,” the newspaper ran with the headline, “EXPLETIVE. EXPLETIVE. EXPLETIVE.”

And after the missed pass interference call in this year’s NFC championship game, the front page led with a banner reading, “REFFING UNBELIEVABLE.”

“We want our newspaper to be more dynamic and have a different voice, the same way New Orleans is a more dynamic place with a unique voice than other cities,” Lorando said. “ . . . We’ve established a mind-set here where bolder is better and we’re a bit more practiced at taking these kind of risks than other papers.”

But the blank page approach didn’t feel tremendously daring, he said. The paper wasn’t making a play on words with profanity, and it was obvious the readership would be in on the joke.

It would clearly the capture the mood in the city, the paper’s leadership reasoned. Readers were tired of this NFL season. They were ready to move on. And they certainly didn’t want to hear about the Super Bowl (though, the Times-Picayune’s sports section still provided coverage). But the page resonated far beyond the Big Easy, too.

In an era where local journalism is struggling, Lorando said, it’s funny to think that a print newspaper captured the Internet’s attention after the biggest sporting event of the year.

“It’s gratifying to know you’ve struck a chord,” he said. “Our intention is to tell the story of how New Orleans felt about the Super Bowl, but I think how New Orleans felt about the Super Bowl happened in a lot of places.”

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