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Looking to next season for Saints, Colts

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - There's no telling when, or even if, he'll experience this moment again. So Saints coach Sean Payton tried to make it last as long as he possibly could.

After his Saints beat the Colts, 31-17, in Super Bowl XLIV, Payton slept with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"This thing laid in my bed next to me," he said, pointing to the trophy Mondaymorning before the Saints returned home to a dizzying welcome from their fans. "I rolled over a couple times, and I probably drooled on it, man. Nothing like being an NFL coach and being part of this with great players like Drew Brees. I don't take that lightly. I'm honored."

The most unforgettable season in the Saints' 43-year history ended triumphantly Sunday night as MVP Brees helped the underdogs overcome a 10-0 deficit and earn the franchise's first Super Bowl title. But there's no guarantee of what comes next, and whether the Saints can duplicate this year's run.

Of course, that didn't stop Payton from peering ahead to next year's Super Bowl.

"Maybe this allows you 24, 48 hours before you start eyeing up the next challenge," he said. "Somewhere around midnight last night, we talked about Dallas, Texas . One of the greatest stadiums now that our league knows. There's probably never enough in regards to challenge."

But if the Saints are to pull off a rare Super Bowl repeat - the last one being the Patriots in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX - they'll have to do it with a different roster. The Saints face numerous offseason decisions that could have a significant impact on which players return and which depart as free agents or in trades.

There's plenty of uncertainty about Reggie Bush, the No. 2 overall pick in 2006. He has become a backup to Pierre Thomas, meaning the Saints might want to part with him because of his bloated salary. Bush counted for more than $12 million on their 2009 salary cap and is due to make more than $8 million in 2010.

Thomas is a restricted free agent, and the Saints might want to make a longer-term commitment with him over Bush. Other restricted free agents include Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans and safety Roman Harper. Safety Darren Sharper, whose nine interceptions tied for the NFL lead, and linebacker Scott Fujita are unrestricted free agents.

But many other key Saints are certain to return, including Brees, former Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma and wide receiver Marques Colston.

The Colts, meanwhile, have most of their key players returning, and Peyton Manning is expected to sign an extension that will make him the NFL's highest-paid player, a position currently held by his brother Eli. Their biggest unrestricted free agent is linebacker Gary Brackett.

Despite the Super Bowl loss, the Colts likely will go into next season among the AFC favorites again. "This will only make us hungrier for next season, and we'll come back and regroup," coach Jim Caldwell said.

For now, the moment belongs to the Saints. The magic perhaps was best summed up by this scene late Sunday night:

Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, grandson of Vince Lombardi - who won the first two Super Bowls - was photographed holding the trophy named for the venerable coach.

"Joe Lombardi, his father, Vince Jr., and his two brothers sat and posed with this trophy, while pictures were taken," Payton said. "I just thought to myself, 'You've got to be kidding me.' If you believe in heaven, and you believe Vince Lombardi is there looking down on his grandson, it doesn't get any better."

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