Troy Evans (54) and Marvin Mitchell (50) of the New Orleans Saints celebrate… (Ronald Martinez / Getty…)
Reporting from Miami Gardens, Fla. — Decades of futility end, 4 1/2 years after Katrina
The New Orleans Saints, for decades the NFL's lovable losers, used the biggest stage Sunday to answer the question that has become their mantra.
Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints?
The answer: Not a soul.
What once was unbelievable is now a reality. The underdog Saints are pro football's champions, 31-17 victors over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
As thousands of fans gathered in the stands behind an end zone at Sun Life Stadium chanting "Who-dat! Who-dat!" Saints quarterback Drew Brees sat on a podium and tried to find the right words. To him, the club's first trip to the Super Bowl -- and, of course, its first Lombardi Trophy -- means so much more than a spot in the history books, especially to a region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"Whoever thought that this could be happening?" Brees said. "Eighty-five percent of the city was under water. People were evacuating to places all over the country. Most people left not knowing whether New Orleans would ever come back, or if the organization would ever come back.
"But not only did the organization and the city come back. And so many of our core group of players came in that year as free agents, and we all looked at one another and said, 'We're going to rebuild together. We're going to lean on each other.' And that's what we've done."
To reach the mountaintop, the Saints had to beat a native son, four-time NFL most valuable player Peyton Manning, who was raised in New Orleans. He was on the wrong end of the game's pivotal play, a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter with 3 minutes 12 seconds to go.
That came when the Colts were trailing by seven and looking to march downfield to forge a tie. Indianapolis had done that so often this season, setting an NFL record with seven fourth-quarter comebacks.
This time, however, it wasn't to be. Porter stepped in front of a short third-down pass for Reggie Wayne, snared the ball, found an open path to the end zone and was gone.
"When I saw my blockers in front of me, and only Peyton and the offensive linemen left," Porter said, "I cut back and ran it in."
It was Porter who made a huge interception in the NFC championship game too, picking off a pass by Minnesota's Brett Favre to force overtime.
This time, Porter's runback gave the Saints a two-touchdown lead and sapped the spirit of the Colts, who were favored by 4 1/2 points on the field where they won a Super Bowl three years earlier.
Porter called his play "great film study by me, a great jump, and a great play."
Wayne attributed it to something else.
"They did a good job of guessing," he said. "That's what it is, a guessing game. . . . That's what they've been thriving on all year, creating turnovers and scoring with it. He pretty much caught it and put us in panic mode."
Manning isn't alone. Along their road to the championship, the Saints became the first team to defeat three quarterbacks who previously won Super Bowls (Arizona's Kurt Warner, Favre and Manning).
In their three games before facing the Saints in these playoffs, those three quarterbacks combined for 12 touchdown passes without an interception. But against the Saints, those passers had two touchdowns and four interceptions.
New Orleans used special teams to grab the momentum at the start of the second half. Trailing after two quarters, 10-6, the Saints opened the third with a successful onside kick. That set up a 58-yard touchdown drive for a 13-10 lead. That possession ended with a highlight-reel catch and carry by running back Pierre Thomas for a 16-yard touchdown.
Indianapolis answered with a touchdown, but that would be the last time the Colts scored. The Saints took the lead in the fourth quarter on a two-yard scoring reception by Jeremy Shockey, followed by a two-point conversion, and extended it on Porter's interception return.
Brees was named the game's most valuable player, completing 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards with two touchdowns. His 32 completions tied the Super Bowl record set by New England's Tom Brady six years ago in a victory over Carolina.
About an hour after the game, Brees rode across the field on a golf cart, facing backward as a cluster of cameramen followed in his wake.
In his hands was the Lombardi Trophy. The glistening silver ball was just as shiny as he'd seen on television, Brees said, but "it wasn't as heavy as I thought."
Of course, this comes from a man who has lifted a city.