NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The biggest thing that kept the Saints out of the playoffs in 2008 helped them advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in the 43-year history of the franchise history Sunday night.
In posting an 8-8 record a year ago, six of the Saints' losses were by a combined 18 points. Each of those games were winnable with the Saints either letting a lead slip away or failing to come up with a key play to tie or win the contest.
So "finish" was the team's mantra throughout the 2009 season, a rallying cry that came in handy when the Saints gave up a game-tying touchdown, then made a game-saving defensive play at the end of regulation against Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game.
Finish they did as they won the game in overtime, 31-28, on a 40-yard Garrett Hartley field goal.
It was the seventh time this season the Saints (15-3) were able to finish what they started, which was to put a game away when they had the chance to do it. Still, quarterback Drew Brees was sure to point out that they still have to finish after helping hoist the George S. Halas Trophy.
"The job isn't finished," Brees said. "We have one more game to win."
The Saints will get that opportunity when they play the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7 in Miami.
While the euphoria of getting there for the first time was real, Brees and his teammates quickly made sure that the need to finish one more time was a necessity.
"It feels so good to know that we've given our fans a championship, an NFC championship," Brees said. "We've got another championship we're now going after for them."
The Saints reminded themselves all season of the need to finish as they won T-shirts with the letters and numerals SB 44 on them.
"We truly believed that," said free safety Darren Sharper. "We wouldn't just print up the shirts and make it just talk. We believe we have a team here that can vie for a Super Bowl. We've proven that throughout the year and now we have a chance to go out and prove it.
"I think that everyone on this team has already said we don't just want to get there ... we want to win it," he added. "We printed those shirts about Super Bowl 44 not to say get there. It's to say win it."
About 15 hours after getting past the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game and earning the right to represent the conference in the Super Bowl against the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts, the Saints were back in their practice facility Monday.
The weary players got a run and lift in, then attended a team meeting. Coach Sean Payton then gave them two days off to savor their thrilling win against the Vikings before turning their attention to the Colts.
The Saints will install the game plan during three days of practice before they get a day off Sunday. They will fly to Miami on Monday.
Quarterback Drew Brees, center Jonathan Goodwin, guard Jahri Evans, tackle Jon Stinchcomb, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and free safety Darren Sharper were excused from the all-star contest, but will still take the game in.
Even though they won't suit up, they'll earn $45,000 each if the NFC wins and take home $22,500 each if the AFC prevails.
When asked if he was going to call his NFC buddies to support them, Goodwin, who was scheduled to play in his first Pro Bowl, chuckled and said, "I'll be rooting for the NFC like no other year. I really hope they win this year."
It's estimated that 82 percent of televisions that were on in the city were tuned in to the game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's good that they have a chance to celebrate. But they celebrate around here on anything. They find a lot of times to celebrate and have a good time. But it was a good time for them to come together. I just hope no one got hurt." — Saints FS Darren Sharper, on the city of New Orleans' celebration after they advanced to the Super Bowl.
Jim Caldwell has followed the success of the New Orleans Saints from a distance.
Caldwell was much too involved in his rookie season as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach to watch many of the Saints' games this year. Still, he knows just how good, and how dangerous, a team that New Orleans will bring to Super Bowl XLIV next week.
"I think it's a great story, and certainly they have done so much for that city. That region was absolutely devastated (by Hurricane Katrina), and they brought a lot of pride back, a lot of civic pride. The enthusiasm that you could see surrounding that team is incredible. You saw the pictures of Bourbon Street and Canal Street after that (NFC Championship Game win over Minnesota last Sunday), it was absolutely unbelievable," the Colts coach said.
"I understand a little bit about that city. I spent a lot of time in New Orleans. I recruited that area when I was at Southern Illinois University, my first (full time) coaching job. I recruited a lot of guys from a number of schools down in that area. So, I understand a bit about the culture. They have a lot of pride. We don't want to stamp any of that out. We hope that continues, but what we want to do is win this ballgame."
And that's not going to be easy.
"(The Saints are) tough to ignore. When they were playing well, we were playing well. I read some of the reports where it talked about that very rarely do you find that the two No. 1 seeds end up playing one another. I guess it hasn't happened since 1993. Obviously, that's something we were aware of," Caldwell said.
"They are a good team, a talented team and played well and fought through all of the traps that you typically fall into as a No. 1 seed. We're looking forward to playing them."
New Orleans will present a myriad of challenges on either side of the ball that the Colts will have to contend with.
"They have a number of weapons. Drew Brees is certainly a talented quarterback, extremely accurate guy, who spreads the ball around quite a bit. With the weapons that he has, he can give you some problems. We're really going to have to go to work. They can run the ball. They can throw it with the best of them. They've put a lot of points on the board, so they're tough to handle," he said.
"Defensively, they give you a lot of different looks and a number of problems, and they have great personnel to back it up. They have a good kicking game, return game, etc. Teams, when they get to this point, they don't have too many holes, and they certainly don't."
BY THE NUMBERS: 13. The Colts are one of 13 NFL franchises to make four or more Super Bowl appearances (8, Dallas; 7, Pittsburgh; 6, New England, Denver; 5, Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, Miami, San Francisco, Washington; 4, Colts, Buffalo, Green Bay, Minnesota, New York Giants).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't, and I don't think anyone else does on our staff, either. He seems to get better all the time. You think that he may level out, but he never does. He never gets complacent. He never gets content with his status and just continues to improve and get better. Every year it seems like he takes it to another plateau." — Caldwell on whether he ever takes QB Peyton Manning for granted.