NEW ORLEANS—On Sunday morning, I found an old book in my childhood bedroom called The New Orleans Saints: 25 Years of Heroic Effort. That was the best gloss you could put on the Saints for most of the franchise's existence: They never won anything, but at least they weren't trying to lose. Those losing seasons never dulled the city's passion for its football team, but they did breed a sense that the Saints fan's exuberance would forever be irrational. This trip back home for the NFC Championship game feels different, though. The fleurs-de-lis tattooed onto ankles and shaved into the backs of heads; the spontaneous call-and-response of "Who Dat!" in grocery store aisles; the song "I Believe (Saints Go All the Way)" lilting from storefronts and car radios. These are all signs of pride, sure, but they're also totems of optimism. For the first time I can remember, all of us Saints fans think our team is going to win.
It doesn't take long to fall back into old habits. "[Saints coach] Sean Payton sucks," moans the woman sitting next to me. "Drew Brees is playing terrible today." The Vikings are in position for a winning field goal with less than a minute to go, and it's time for recriminations. But then Brett Favre saves New Orleans from its self-pity. The Minnesota quarterback rolls to his right and throws back across his body, a long, floating spiral that Saints cornerback Tracy Porter flashes in to intercept. Saints alive! In overtime, Garrett Hartley kicks a 40-yard field goal and fans in black and gold hug and shout and drop to their knees, crying. Yes, the Saints are going to the Super Bowl for the first time ever. Maybe it wasn't foolish to believe after all.
Fine, the Saints wouldn't look so heroic if not for five Minnesota turnovers. They were outgained 475 yards to 257 and repeatedly failed to convert on 3rd and short. While Drew Brees certainly wasn't terrible, he did play his worst game of the season, missing open receivers in the flat and failing to hit any pass plays for big yardage. Unlike Favre, however, the Saints quarterback never threw the ball into danger. On Sunday night, old man Wrangler lived up and down to his reputation. Favre hung in bravely under pressure to fit the ball in to Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and Visanthe Shiancoe, dinking and dunking the Vikings down the field 10 yards at a time. He also made a pair of dumb passes into coverage that cost his team points, and he would've thrown a third interception if Saints corner Jabari Greer hadn't let the easy pick bounce off his chest.
The Vikings' backs and receivers, too, couldn't hold onto the ball. Berrian, Percy Harvin, and Adrian Peterson all fumbled, with Peterson bobbling the pigskin three times. (The Saints pounced on one of those bobbles, a botched exchange with Favre near the Saints goal line.) Just like his quarterback, Minnesota's star runner was alternately his team's best and worst player: When Peterson wasn't putting the ball on the ground, he ran around and through the Saints defense for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps all the fumbling is an outgrowth of what makes him so great. Peterson runs more viciously than any back in the NFL; when you're putting all your energy into running people over, maybe you lose focus on what's between your hands.
Along with the turnovers, the Saints extracted a huge advantage in the kicking game. Punter and kickoff man Thomas Morstead played flawlessly, averaging 51.3 yards on seven booming punts and taking return specialist Harvin out of the game with his deep kickoffs. Minnesota kicker Ryan Longwell doesn't have Morstead's leg, and the Saints' Courtney Roby and Pierre Thomas set up two scores with long returns off short kickoffs—a pair of essential plays on a night when the Saints offense couldn't move the ball as per usual.
In the Saints' locker room after the game, Tracy Porter revels in his newfound stardom. (What would you expect from a guy with a Pac-Man haircut?) Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, one year after being reinstated to the league after a substance-abuse ban, thanks his family and Commissioner Roger Goodell in a rambling soliloquy. Linebacker Scott Shanle demonstrates how tough it is to pull off a championship T-shirt once it's stretched tightly over shoulder pads.
Brees, standing alone in the back corner, folds his allotment of championship apparel, placing his NFC Champs shirts and hats carefully into a backpack. Handed the stat sheet by a team PR rep, he shakes his head, disgusted by his team's putrid offensive numbers. By the time he walks out of the tunnel, though, he seems to have remembered that it's not how you play, but whether you win the game. Brees' wife, Brittany, spots him and jumps into his arms, and soon they're grinning next to the championship trophy.
Drew Brees' first home game as the Saints' starting quarterback came in 2006, in the Superdome's grand reopening after Hurricane Katrina. While it's too pat to say the franchise's growth has mirrored the city's rebuilding, the team has been the one undeniable rallying point for post-Katrina New Orleans. That's not surprising: The Saints have always been a great uniter in an often-divided city. Too often, though, we were united because we all had bags over our heads. But on this night, for once, a heroic effort culminated in a historic win.