In the end, it was a native son of Louisiana who delivered football salvation to New Orleans.
Cornerback Tracy Porter, a native of Port Allen, La. — who said the day he was taken in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Saints was the happiest day of his life — stepped in front of a Peyton Manning pass and took it back 74 yards to cement a 31-17 win over the Colts Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIV. (Click here for the complete recap.)
It put the cap on a remarkable year for the Saints. Under Drew Brees and Sean Payton, the franchise came to represent the rebirth and revitalization of the city of New Orleans — four years ago, the team spent the entire season away from New Orleans. So, when Saints running back Reggie Bush said after the game, “This game was bigger than football,” he wasn’t engaging in hyperbole. The team became a symbol for the people of the city, and the team and its fans engaged in a symbiotic relationship that was perhaps unlike anything we’ve seen in recent American sports history.
“Four years ago, who ever thought this would be happening when 85 percent of the city was under water from [Hurricane] Katrina?” said Brees, who walked away with Super Bowl MVP honors. “Most people not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back or if the organization and the team would come back ... This is the culmination of that belief and that faith.”
That’s all important, and a responsibility that the franchise takes very seriously. But maybe, in the midst of all that, we all lost sight of just how good the Saints really are. Viewed as a football team instead of a collection of icons of hope and resiliency, the Saints are an impressive collection, a team that deserves every inch of success it has achieved this season. The Saints finished the regular season 13-3 and clearly were the class of the NFC. On offense, they scored a league-leading 510 points, humiliating a whole host of talented teams that came into the Superdome. The defense finished the regular season with 39 takeaways and made a collection of elite quarterbacks including Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Donovan McNabb look foolish.
Things were kicked up a notch in the playoffs, when New Orleans won three postseason games this winter after winning only two in the previous 42 years. The Saints beat Arizona, Minnesota and Indianapolis for their first title, scoring 107 points and allowing only 59. In addition, they beat three teams led by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks — Manning, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, all of whom are Hall of Famers.
But none of that may have mattered if not for the heroics of Porter, the Louisiana native who had an image of the Superdome carved into his hair in the days leading up to the game. With 3:24 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints nervously clinging to a 24-17 lead, Manning was leading the Colts down the field. The Indy quarterback had done excellent work underneath, riddling the New Orleans secondary. With the red zone looming, Indianapolis was facing a third-and-5 and the New Orleans 31 when he took the snap out of the shotgun.
As Manning called out the signals, Indianapolis rookie receiver Austin Collie, who had been split wide left, came in motion from left to right. Manning took the snap, and as that happened, Collie and fellow receiver Reggie Wayne came off the line, virtually one behind the other. Manning dropped back — meanwhile, Collie broke inside, while Wayne took the out route.
Porter was watching. After recalling film study for the game, the cornerback noticed the play was starting to take on a familiar pattern.
“We knew that on third-and-short, [the Colts] stack, and they like the outside release for the slant,” Porter told reporters after the game. “It was great film study by me, a great jump and a great play.”
With that knowledge, when Wayne came back to the ball at the first-down marker, Porter jumped it, and the same guy who destroyed the dreams of Favre and the Vikings in the NFC championship game (he picked off Favre at the end of regulation) crushed the hopes of Colts fans. The interception followed, and he weaved his way through would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
“When I saw my blockers in front of me and only Peyton [Manning] and the offensive linemen left,” Porter said, “I cut back and ran it in.”
It wasn’t the ballgame — Indianapolis came up short on a fourth-down attempt deep in New Orleans territory with less than a minute to go — but it was enough to start the parties on Bourbon Street.
“[He] made a great play. He made a great play,” Manning said after the game. “That’s all I can say about it. Porter made a heck of a play.”
“Words can’t describe how much this means for New Orleans,” Porter told reporters after the game. “I am a Louisiana native, and this is real big.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIV:
WHEN IT COMES TO THE COLTS’ ULTIMATE LEGACY, QUESTIONS STILL REMAIN
The success of Manning and the Colts over the last decade is undeniable: Since the start of the 1999 season, Indianapolis owns the NFL’s best regular-season record while being the only team to earn 10 playoff appearances in the last 11 seasons. The Colts won Super Bowl XLI, and won more consecutive regular-season games than any team. Indy also made the playoffs more often this decade than any team, and reached the playoffs more consecutive years than any other team.
But on Sunday, the Colts came up short in the playoffs again. And for all their regular-season success, their lone Super Bowl title now leaves them looking an awful lot like the Atlanta Braves of the NFL. That’s not to slight either organization: Both are well-run, forward-thinking organizations that aren’t afraid to spend and have been able to achieve a consistent level of success thanks in large part to a handful of stars.
However, with one singular exception, they have had trouble sealing the deal. On Sunday, the Colts came up short in the clutch … again. There were times where they looked unprepared — they were unable to keep the Saints from converting on a late field goal before the end of the first half and were caught unaware on the onside kick to start the second half.
And then there’s Manning. The quarterback, who had been operating at peak efficiency for much of the regular season and postseason with a pair of relatively anonymous pass-catchers in Pierre Garcon and Collie to go along with old reliables Wayne and Dallas Clark, now is a strikingly pedestrian 9-9 in playoff games.
On Sunday, he ended up going 31-for-45 for 388 yards but with just one touchdown. When he was presented with the opportunity to put together a character-defining drive on the big stage in the mold of John Elway, Tom Brady and Joe Montana, Manning came up short, delivering the ball instead to Porter.
“I give the Saints a lot of credit,” Manning said. “They played well in all phases. Made some critical plays on special teams, defense made stops when they had to, and Drew [Brees] did a good job getting his team in the end zone. They deserve the win today.”
NO ONE HAD A STRANGER SEASON THAT GARRETT HARTLEY
The New Orleans kicker, who was suspended for the first four games of 2009 for testing positive for Adderall, won his job back by the midway point of the season. After a solid regular season, he delivered the Saints into the Super Bowl with a game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC championship game against Minnesota.
On Sunday, he delivered the punctuation mark on a wild year. He had three field goals from beyond 40 yards — 46, 44 and 47 — and became the first kicker in the history of the Super Bowl to connect three times from 40-plus yards in the game. (Cincinnati’s Jim Breech was the only kicker to have made two field goals from more than 40 yards when he accomplished it against San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII.)
Hartley’s performance stood in contrast to Indianapolis kicker Matt Stover. Filling in for the injured Adam Vinatieri, Stover (who became the oldest player in a Super Bowl at 42 years, 11 days) had made 15 straight field goal attempts in the playoffs before his 51-yarder in the second half was hooked to the left and left Manning fuming on the sidelines.
“It’s amazing. It’s really remarkable,” Hartley told reporters after the game. “Everything that we’ve done, we've been playing for this moment. We took advantage of it, and we came out victorious.”
IN FACT, IT WAS GREAT DAY FOR THE WHOLE NEW ORLEANS SPECIAL TEAMS CREW
Aside from Hartley’s performance, the average start for Indianapolis was its own 16-yard line, while the Saints’ average start was their own 32. New Orleans kick returner Courtney Roby averaged 25.5 yards per return, and had a 34-yarder mixed in there for good nature.
But when people talk about the work of the Saints’ special teamers in Super Bowl XLIV, they’ll talk about the surprise onside kick that started the second half. It was a lightning bolt that came out of the South Florida sky — kickoff specialist/punter Thomas Morstead awkwardly bounced an onside boot toward the Colts to open the second half, a ball that was recovered by New Orleans special teamer Jonathan Casillas.
“I wasn’t worried,” Morstead said when asked about what he was thinking before the start of the second half. “I was terrified.”
It stunned almost everyone, and led to a six-play, 58-yard drive for the Saints that ended when Brees hit Pierre Thomas on a 16-yard touchdown pass on the right side that gave New Orleans a 13-10 lead. It was something the Saints had been working on for weeks, but when the rubber hit the road, Payton celebrated the execution of his special teams unit that made it all work.
“I just told our guys you’ve got to make me look good on this,” Payton said. “That really becomes like a turnover.”
“I think it was a bold move, but it worked out for them,” Colts right tackle Ryan Diem said. “I’ll be honest with you, I did not see it coming. At that point in the game, I did not expect them to do anything like that. The element of surprise got us.”
SEAN PAYTON TAKES MORE CHANCES THAN JIM CALDWELL
Both coaches took their share of chances on Sunday night (the Colts went for it twice on fourth down), but it was Payton who was boldest when it counted.
New Orleans got the ball rolling on the second-guess express with just under two minutes left in the first half when it went for it on fourth and goal from the Indianapolis 1-yard line. The Saints didn’t score (Pierre Thomas was stopped short for no gain on a short pass), but the New Orleans defense forced a quick three-and-out and managed to get the ball back with excellent field position. Hartley booted a 44-yard field goal with five seconds left to make it 10-6 at the half.
In the second half, it started with the surprise onside kick (named “Ambush”), which will be discussed and dissected for years to come, and continued with a fourth-quarter challenge of a failed New Orleans two-point conversion after a pass to Lance Moore was ruled incomplete. (After a review, referee Scott Green overruled the on-field call, giving the Saints a 24-17 edge.)
On Sunday, more often not, the gambles paid off, much to the delight of his team.
“Sean’s got big gonads,” Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey told reporters.
YOU CAN NO LONGER TALK ABOUT ELITE NFL QUARTERBACKS AND NOT INCLUDE DREW BREES IN THE DISCUSSION
On Sunday, Brees struggled out of the gate, but he was absolutely untouchable over the final three quarters. He was unable to connect on many of the deep balls that had been the signature of the New Orleans passing game for much of the season (his longest pass play of the night was a 27-yarder to Marques Colston), but was excellent at working underneath with receivers Devery Henderson, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.
He did a great job keeping the Saints offense in rhythm much of the night and got into a Phil Simms-like zone at one point, completing 21-of-24 consecutive passes at one point, and going 12-for-12 for 93 yards on his two scoring drives. In the end, he finished 32-of-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns (one to Thomas and one to Jeremy Shockey).
It capped an amazing four-years stretch for Brees, who was abandoned by San Diego in favor of Philip Rivers before joining Payton and the Saints … but who has led the NFL with 18,298 yards since joining the Saints in 2006. Small wonder that when he presented Brees with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the game, his coach — who called him “magnificent” in the postgame victory celebration — referred to him as “the MVP of our league.”
“Drew did a good job getting his team in the end zone,” said Manning, who won his fourth NFL MVP award prior to the start of the playoffs. “They deserved to win today.”
“We just believed in ourselves and we knew that we had an entire city and maybe an entire country behind us,” said Brees, the game’s MVP. “What can I say? I tried to imagine what this moment would be like for a long time, and it’s better than expected.”
THE NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE CAN SUCCEED WITHOUT FORCING A FLURRY OF TURNOVERS
The Saints defense didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the stat sheet all season, and a quick glance after Sunday’s game looked fairly similar to what happened to New Orleans all season long: Entering Sunday’s game, Indy was one of the worst rushing teams in the league this season but still managed to accrue 5.2 yards per carry. Manning threw for 333 yards, and the Colts had 432 net yards and finished with an average of 6.8 yards per play.
But the Saints were able to come up with big plays when it counted. Defensively, New Orleans lived and died on forcing takeaways all year long — it had 46, including the regular season and the playoffs. In the end, just one was enough to lift the Saints defense past Indianapolis on Sunday.
Porter’s fourth-quarter pick prevented a possible tie game and cemented an extraordinary legacy for the New Orleans defense — as previously stated, for the first time in the history of the league, a team and its defense advanced to and won the Super Bowl by defeating three teams led by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Manning, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner).
“In the second half, they played lights-out against a good offense and got the turnover,” Payton said. “It was a great team win tonight.”
“We said it at the beginning, two weeks ago and at the beginning of the year — we were tired of being the stepchild,” safety Roman Harper said of the New Orleans defense, which has humbled a whole host of great quarterbacks — both Manning brothers, Favre, Warner, Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb — this season.
“This year we were going to win in spite of the defense, not to spite the defense. We were going to put it on us and at the end of the day, whether we win or lose, they are going to put all the blame on the defense. ... So we went out there and took it tonight. There's no better feeling than being a world champ.”
THIS TIME, IT WAS THE SAINTS WHO PROVED THEY COULD TAKE A PUNCH
We detailed the Colts' remarkable resiliency since 2006 in big games a couple of times over the last week or so, including their work in the 2006 and 2009 AFC championship games where they were able to rally from early deficits, keep their heads about them and eventually win the game. Their seven comeback wins over the 2009 season only burnished that legend.
However, on Sunday, things were flipped. Indianapolis was the team that jumped to an early lead. The Colts’ 96-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter tied the 1985 Bears for the longest in Super Bowl history and gained them a double-digit edge on a Manning to Garcon 19-yard touchdown pass that made it 10-0 with 36 seconds left to play in the first quarter.
That all turned around in the second quarter when the Saints really seized control of the game — in those 15 minutes, they ran 32 plays to the Colts’ 6. It continued into the second half — no one scored a point on the Colts in the second half of their two previous postseason games, and on Sunday, New Orleans was able to put up 25.
“We talked about it at halftime,” Payton said of the Saints’ early deficit. “It’s really a credit to every one of these players here. There’s not enough room on this stage for all of them, but they carried out this play and I’m just proud. I’m proud of this team.”
EVEN ON ONE LEG, DWIGHT FREENEY CAN STILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Slowed by torn ligaments in his right ankle, the Pro Bowl defensive end still managed to control much of the action in the first half, taking on double teams from Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Jahri Evans several times. Freeney even broke through for a sack of Brees in the second quarter, forcing New Orleans to settle for a field goal.
But the extended halftime forced the ankle to stiffen up, and it hampered his play in the second half. (“Once it gets stiff, it’s tough to bring it back,” Freeney said after the game.) In addition, Freeney said that Brees was able to deliver the ball a lot quicker in the second half, negating much of the Indianapolis pass rush.
“The second half, that ball was gone,” Freeney told reporters after the game.
Freeney ended up with one tackle on the day, but with the eternal respect of his teammates.
“He had a really gutsy performance,” Colts defensive tackle Dan Muir said of Freeney, who sat out every day of practice this past week. "He played through a lot of pain all day.”
“I was proud of him. He stepped up. He has a lot of heart,” Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis said. “To be able to come back from that in two weeks time speaks a lot about his character.”
THESE TWO TEAMS WILL LOOK DIFFERENT NEXT YEAR, BUT BOTH APPEAR WELL-POSITIONED FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS
Both of these teams will undergo changes in the offseason, with the Saints likely to start the 2010 season with a different look than they had Sunday night in Miami — according to ESPN, New Orleans has a whopping 18 restricted free agents and 11 unrestricted free agents. Meanwhile, the Colts don’t have the same kind of question marks, but they almost surely will lose some core players between now and the start of training camp.
However, these two teams figure to be in the top tier of the NFL for the next season and beyond, because they have struck an excellent balance in their overall team-building approach. In both New Orleans and Indianapolis, the four key members of their franchises — the superstar, coach, general manager and owner all clearly are on the same page when it comes to their style.
With the Colts, it’s clear everyone in the organization speaks with one voice: Manning, Jim Caldwell, president Bill Polian and owner Jim Irsay all are well aware of what they need to do to keep the franchise successful, and other than a question about Manning’s contract, they all appear locked in for the long term in Indianapolis.
The same is true in New Orleans, where the combination of Brees, Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson have kept a steady approach when it comes to team-building. The Saints, so long considered the very model of how not to run a franchise, have managed to strike a harmonious note in their relationships among the franchise's four power brokers, none of whom appear to be interested in leaving any time soon.
“We thought we had a pretty good team the last two years, but this offseason we thought we improved ourselves on defense and we did some things in the running game,” Loomis told reporters after the game. “It all came together, and you just have to credit our coaching staff and our players for doing an awesome job all year long.”