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Sensational Saints

In its 43rd year, the team has been known more for its failures. It

October 11, 2009|Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- Don't expect to see any "bag heads" in the Louisiana Superdome this year.

The Saints have become a full-blown sensation after winning each of their first four games by two touchdowns or more, easily exceeding the expectations of longtime fans.

"We never had anything this explosive before, where we've got all aspects of the offense and then we can hold them on defense," said Pam Randazza, owner of a suburban New Orleans shop that specializes in Saints merchandise. "People are talking about that. It's looking so much different than the past and it's really affected people in the way they're thinking -- and the way they're buying. The recession hasn't affected us at all."

The Saints have won a couple games on the strength of Drew Brees' prolific passing, which was expected. They've also done so with the NFL's second-best running game, a defense with a penchant for big plays and a strong kicking game.

It's all added up to one of the most dominant starts in franchise history, begging the question: Could this finally be the year New Orleans plays in its first Super Bowl?

"The funny thing is, we're talking about it, but we're also taking it one game at a time," Randazza said of her discussions with fans. "We don't want to overdo it because we've always got that voodoo hex here where we might have something go wrong if we get ahead of ourselves."

Saints players seem to be taking a similar approach. As they gathered belongings from their lockers shortly before heading out for the long weekend off, several of them wore T-shirts that had "SB44" screen printed on the front.

Brees, who was wearing one of the shirts, declined to discuss it, smiling and shaking his head side-to-side when asked about its significance, or whether it had anything to do with the 44th Super Bowl coming up at the end of this season.

Brees wasn't about to deny that the club's confidence is surging, though. He asserted that the lessons learned from the past two seasons -- the Saints went 7-9 in 2007 and 8-8 in 2008 -- laid the foundation for a team that is finally built to win consistently.

"We're ready to handle whatever's thrown at us," Brees said. "We've experienced a lot from the past two years especially -- the agony of defeat and losing some of those close games that we felt like we never should have lost. ... We've learned a lot from that. We don't want to be that team ever again. So I think there's always that fire burning inside of us that makes us feel like that part is in our past, but yet we needed to go through that in order to be where we're at now."

The Saints have been around 43 years, have had a grand total of eight winning seasons and have made the playoffs six times. For years they were known more for teams that played so badly their fans called them the "Aints" and wore grocery bags over their heads.

They fielded some of their best squads under former coach Jim Mora, who rode a dominant defense, led by a linebacker corps called the "Dome Patrol," to 11-5 and 12-4 records in 1991 and '92. Yet, there was never a sense back then that the Saints were a team of destiny because the San Francisco 49ers' dynasty was still going strong. In fact, the year the Saints won 12 games, they finished second in their division to the Niners.

When Coach Sean Payton took over in 2006, he inherited a squad that had gone 3-13 while struggling with nomadic conditions forced upon it by Hurricane Katrina.

Success came unexpectedly quickly as Payton guided the Saints to a 10-6 record and the first NFC championship game appearance in franchise history.

While Brees continued getting better during the next two seasons, the team as a whole slid backward. The club was beset by key injuries, a lack of depth and untimely blunders that conjured memories of the old "Aints."

This season, the Saints' defense, under new coordinator Gregg Williams, has been more prone to making big plays than giving them up. Key roster moves shored up the defensive backfield. The Saints signed safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Jabari Greer to free-agent deals last winter, then drafted cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the first round last spring. Those moves bolstered others made in 2008, such as a trade for linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the signing of cornerback Randall Gay and drafting of cornerback Tracy Porter.

They've all been key players in 2009. Sharper has five interceptions, two returned for scores. Greer has been strong in coverage, shutting down Terrell Owens in Buffalo.

Jenkins has a pair of forced fumbles on kick coverage, which both led to scores. The Saints lead the NFL in total takeaways with 13 and are tied for first in turnover differential at plus-7.

"We're playing better defensively. We've helped ourselves personnel-wise. We're running the football better. We're healthier at this time of the year than we have been," Payton said. "It's hard to just point to one thing and say this is it."

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