How Sean Payton's daring play-calling won the New Orleans Saints their first Super Bowl.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 8 2010 4:02 AM

Big, Not Easy

How Sean Payton's daring play-calling won the New Orleans Saints their first Super Bowl.

Also in Slate: Seth Stevenson reviews the best and worst Super Bowl ads. Remember what the game is all about with this Magnum Photos gallery on football. 

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Despite Brees throwing close to a perfect game, the Colts still had a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter. In a game of huge kicks, both onside and conventional—a hat tip to Hartley, the first kicker in Super Bowl history to make three field goals of longer than 40 yards—Matt Stover's missed 51-yard field goal with 10:39 to go had the biggest effect on the outcome. Instead of giving the Colts a four-point lead, the errant kick set up the Saints at their 40-yard line—field position they'd use to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

Stover deserves no blame for missing that crucial kick—he hasn't made a 50-yard field goal since 2006. Blame Colts coach Jim Caldwell. Sure, it would've taken Sean Payton-esque chutzpah to go for it on fourth and 11 from the 33-yard line in a one-point game. But to hell with convention: When your elderly kicker has no chance of knocking it through, why have him try?

Aside from Caldwell's iffy game management, this was a Super Bowl free of all things that make football annoying. The refs kept their flags in their pockets and CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms kept their feet out of their mouths, sticking to the on-field action rather than waxing poetic about the Saints uniting a hurricane-ravaged city. (Dishonorable mention does go to Katie Couric, who asked Brees in a pre-game interview, "Did you help save New Orleans, or did New Orleans help save you?") There was also just one contested call—a replay reversal on Lance Moore's catch for a two-point conversion—that, by comparison with your average Super Bowl imbroglio, barely qualified as controversial. (Saints fans should send black-and-gold bouquets to CBS for the copious super-slo-mo replays of Moore lunging the ball across the goal line.)

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Even after Brees, Moore, and the guy in the replay booth gave the Saints a 24-17 lead, Peyton Manning still had the ball with a chance to tie the score. Manning trails just Dan Marino in come-from-behind fourth quarter victories, and the Colts had seven such wins this season. One of those comebacks came when Patriots coach Bill Belichick—showing confidence, or boldness, or stupidity—chose to go for it on fourth down from inside his own 30-yard line  rather than willingly put the ball in Manning's hands.

On Sunday night, the Saints had no choice but to let the comeback king do his thing. The thing Manning did, shockingly, was seal the Super Bowl for his hometown Saints. On third and 5 from the Saints' 31, Manning threw a quick slant to Reggie Wayne. It's a play the Colts have run a million times, one that's impossible to defend when a receiver and quarterback hit their marks. This time, the Colts went 0-for-2. Wayne appeared to slip and didn't make a sharp break on the ball. Manning, maybe too eager to stick with an old, reliable play call, didn't notice that Tracy Porter—the Saints cornerback who picked off Favre to save the NFC championship game and came out for Super Bowl XLIV with the Superdome and the Lombardi Trophy shaved into the side of his head—had the route sussed out. Porter jumped in front of Wayne, caught the ball in full stride, and streaked 74 yards for the game's final points. "I'm sure when Peyton Manning was growing up he always wanted to throw the TD pass that gave the Saints a Super Bowl win," ESPN the Magazine's Jorge Arangure wrote after the game. "Now he has."

For a team that went two full decades without a winning season and had just two all-time playoff wins before 2010, this ridiculous ending was just as plausible as any. When the game was over, I tried to call home and couldn't get through to anyone for 15 minutes. "All circuits are busy"—that is, everyone who knows what it means to miss New Orleans was dying to find out what they were missing. When I managed to reach a friend who'd been watching the game in the French Quarter, he told me that all the folks in Brees jerseys had sprinted full out for Bourbon Street after the final horn. Once everybody was smashed together, dancing on cars and screaming "Who dat!" there was no doubt it had really happened. We won! We actually won!!!

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