MIAMI - MIAMI
Drew Brees and Sean Payton came to New Orleans four years ago to rebuild a football team and offer hope for a city devastated by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. They poured their very souls into that enormous set of objectives, even when most of the city still was under water and no one knew if it would ever come all the way back.
Last night, against the backdrop of the biggest moment in professional sports, the two saw their unlikely dreams come true. Behind Brees' brilliant passing and Payton's gutsy decisions, the Saints pulled off what once seemed unimaginable.
They beat the Colts, 31-17, in Super Bowl XLIV, completing the resurgence of a team once defined by its futility and continuing the renaissance of a city and a region nearly given up for lost.
"We played for so much more than ourselves," said an emotional Brees, who was voted the game's Most Valuable Player. "We played for our city. We played for the entire Gulf Coast region. We played for the entire 'Who Dat' nation that was behind us every step of the way."
It was a glorious moment for a people battered by the heartbreak of so much death and destruction from one of the worst natural disasters in history. And it was a moment that will be cherished by a team and a city so deserving of something this meaningful. Sure, it's only a game. But for the people of New Orleans, this is a cause.
"I wish we could split this trophy into a lot of little pieces for all the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region," Payton said. "They deserve it."
The two men were at the heart of last night's big finish. Brees put on one of the top individual performances in Super Bowl history by going 32-for-39 for 288 yards, two touchdowns and a 114.5 rating. Payton made the kind of aggressive calls that can either make you look like a fool or turn you into a champion.
The game turned on Payton's risky call at the start of the second half. With his team trailing 10-6, Payton told the Saints they would attempt the onside kick they'd practiced all week.
They lined up as if it were a normal kickoff, but kicker Thomas Morestead attempted the onside kick and the Saints recovered it. Brees then drove the Saints 58 yards in six plays, capping the drive with a 16-yard screen pass to Pierre Thomas for a touchdown that gave the Saints a 13-10 lead.
"At halftime, I told them, 'You've got to make me look right,' " Payton said. "It was something we had seen and practiced all week. You get a little nervous, but we were able to take advantage of it and get seven points. That really becomes like a turnover."
Brees' remarkable performance continued as he outplayed Peyton Manning down the stretch. In the end, it was Manning who buckled, throwing an interception returned for a 74-yard TD by Tracy Porter to make it 31-17 Saints.
"Four years ago, whoever thought this would happen?" Brees said. "At that time, 85 percent of the city was under water, all the residents were relocated to places all over the country, and people didn't know if New Orleans would be back or if the team would be back. But we looked at each other and said, 'We're going to rebuild together. We're going to lean on each other.' This is the culmination of all that belief and all that faith."
For Payton, it was the crowning moment of a coaching career that only seven years ago hit bottom when Giants coach Jim Fassel took away his offensive play-calling duties. But Payton began his own rebuilding process with the Cowboys the next year under Bill Parcells, who already had given another coach a chance after he experienced his own bottom. Parcells hired Bill Belichick after he was fired by the Browns in 1995, and Belichick soon developed into a Super Bowl champion coach.
Now Payton has his own title, one he'll share with Brees and all the people of a city nearly destroyed by the winds and the water of that horrible storm on Aug. 28, 2005.