MIAMI - The team from New Orleans beat the man from New Orleans. The Super Bowl that was going to validate the greatness of Peyton Manning instead verified the heart and hustle of his hometown Saints.
Manning was supposed to lead the Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLIV. Instead, on a night of surprises, it was the other quarterback, Drew Brees, who led the team Manning cheered for as a kid to a 31-17 win before 74,059 fans Sunday night at Sun Life Stadium.
It was Brees - and a defense that did what couldn't be done against Manning. The Saints kept the ball out of his hands, and then late in the game - when it was in his hands - turned an interception by Tracy Porter into a touchdown as stunning as it was crushing.
A franchise that for so long was so appallingly bad that its fans wore bags on their heads and nicknamed it the "Aints'' reached the summit of pro football. In their 43rd year of existence, the Saints finally have gone marching in.
Whether the championship in any way eases the pain of Hurricane Katrina's destruction 41/2 years ago is open for discussion. But moments after the final gun on that most famous of party thoroughfares, Bourbon Street, the city already was wild.
"Four years ago we were under water,'' Brees said, "and now look what's happened. I feel so good for the people there.''
Brees completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns and was named MVP. Maybe because the Colts' Dwight Freeney was slowed by that sore ankle. Maybe not.
"I tried to imagine what this moment would be like for a long time,'' said Brees, signed as a free agent four years ago when the Chargers wouldn't bring him back. "It's better than I imagined.''
It's hard to imagine what the favored Colts were thinking. They held a 10-0 first-quarter lead and still led at halftime, but the game then turned abruptly. The Saints had the ball for all but 2:34 of the second quarter, and even though they failed to score a touchdown on two plays from the 1-yard line, there was a sense the Colts could be stopped.
"We didn't care if they got 200 yards rushing,'' Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "We had to try to eliminate the bad plays and the big plays. It was a battle of wills, and we got it done.''
The Colts, the worst rushing team in the NFL, ran for 99 yards, and Manning passed for 333 and a touchdown. But he didn't come up with many big completions, as Williams had planned.
The Saints used field goals of 46, 44 and 47 yards by Garrett Hartley - who set a Super Bowl record by kicking three beyond 40 yards - and an onside kickoff to start the second half to make their presence felt. It was a typically aggressive and gutty move by coach Sean Payton. Whatever works.
What didn't work for Manning was the fourth-quarter pass intended for Reggie Wayne with the Colts trailing 24-17 and the ball at the Saints' 31, third-and-5. Porter grabbed it on the run and went 74 yards for the clincher.
"It was great film study,'' Porter said. "We knew on third- and-short they stack. It was great film study by me, a great jump and a great play.''
Manning used the word "disappointment'' several times but also said, "I know from us winning three years ago how exciting it was, and the Saints have the same feeling now. I'm excited for them.''
Manning's father, Archie, of course, was a quarterback for the Saints in their awful days. Peyton's brother Eli is the quarterback for the Giants.
It was a former Giant, tight end Jeremy Shockey, who caught the key touchdown pass with 5:42 left. Shockey's 2-yard catch, along with a two-point conversion pass to Lance Moore - first judged no good but overruled after a Payton challenge - gave New Orleans the lead for good at 24-17.
"I don't care about the catch,'' said Shockey, who didn't play in the Giants' Super Bowl win two years ago because of an injury. "I just care about the team.''
That team is the best in football.
"And it's not only for the city,'' Saints owner Tom Benson said, "it's for the state. New Orleans is back.''