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With a stellar defense matching Brees’ brilliance, the Super Bowl comes into focus

Derick Hingle Photography
Derick Hingle Photography

Jubilance only seems possible after poignant disappointments, and no one has known more of the latter than New Orleans Saints fans. After a desperate struggle from Katrina and the glimmering threats of a potentially exiled and bereft franchise on the brink, through the crest of an epic return to the Dome on Monday Night Football and the crescendo in reaching the NFC championship in 2006, the Saints had met the trough of failed expectations in the interim 2007 and 2008 seasons. In the last two years, while featuring the pure fun of a passionate, dedicated and capable quarterback in Drew Brees and the league’s best offense, the Saints would maddeningly counter any rising hopes with a defense that always did just enough to lose. Bombs, big plays, lack of sacks and turnovers caused a potentially great team to tepidly march only to mediocrity.

But in 2009 things have taken a decidedly new turn: A top-notch defensive mastermind, Gregg Williams, brought his gun-slinging defensive mindset to town, the front office signed Darren Sharper, re-signed Jonathan Vilma, brought in workmanlike low-profile free agents eager to make a name for themselves, cut bait on the underproducing and rewarded the underrecognized. The combination of these factors have made the Saints the very best team in the NFL—a shocking and surreal thing for any Saints fan to read, hear or say aloud.

But the proof is there. The Saints are on a scoring tear similar to the greatest offenses in league history (the 1998 Vikings, the 2000 Rams and the 2007 Patriots), and if they keep up their pace of more than 38 points per game, they will exceed the league’s all-time scoring record.

The defense has also been stellar, shutting down two previously undefeated teams, the New York Jets and the New York Giants, in succession, posting top-ten results in total yards and points allowed, the most interceptions, the second-most passes defended, the most yards and touchdowns off interception returns and the league’s very best turnover ratio (nine more takeaways than turnovers). While Brees is once again excelling on a fantastic scale, the Saints may have finally found his counterpart on defense: Darren Sharper, who leads the league in interceptions with five, yards off interceptions (275 yards), defensive touchdowns (two) and the longest defensive play of the year (99 yards versus the Jets, breaking Saints great Tommy Myers’ long-standing record set way back in 1978). Sharper’s numbers would be even gaudier if not for a penalty nullifying yet another game-changing breakaway interception return for a long touchdown against the Giants. In Sharper, the Saints have a former favorite of fans in Green Bay and Minnesota; he is not only looking at reaching the upper echelon of all-time NFL record holders but also future entrée to the Hall of Fame.

Sharper and the defense have been alternately feasting on the inexperienced, like Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Kevin Kolb; the unconfident, like Trent Edwards; and the rattled, Eli Manning. More choice matchups are on the plate with Chad Henne of the Dolphins and Josh Johnson (and possibly Josh Freeman) of the Buccaneers (first-year starters), Jake Delhomme of Carolina (who has been struggling with a lack of arm strength), Marc Bulger of the Rams and Jason Campbell of the Redskins (mired on the league’s worst offenses), all forthcoming in the next two months. In that respect, the Saints’ main challenges will be bellwether games versus the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. But even so, the scheduling gods have been more than kind in aligning the fates for the Saints: Both games are on Monday night in the Dome, where the Saints have an outstanding home field advantage. Some element of the previously undefeated New York Giants must have been surprised and dismayed at the enormous din caused by a restless native fan base screaming, like acolytes calling for some druidic blood sacrifice ritual under a full moon, for the head of one of its own, Eli Manning, a local scion of the beloved Saint Archie. And it showed as the Saints proceeded to eviscerate their Big Apple victims in true Halloween-like fashion.

Saints fans have been encouraged by the team’s offensive and defensive onslaughts to new heights of frenzy because fans and players alike are truly starting to feel like this is “the year.” Much of the national media is paying attention and agrees. The Dome should be at a frightening decibel level by the time the Dallas Cowboys and their lame-duck coach, Wade Phillips, and ever-declining quarterback, Tony Romo, limp into town on December 19 for yet another late-night home game, on no less than what should prove to be a very raucous Saturday night during the midst of the holiday season.

Not only will these crucial home games against the Falcons, Patriots and Cowboys be highly enjoyable events creating a cacophony for the senses, but they will also be perfectly designed, if things continue apace (and they might as the Saints’ other remaining games come against six opponents currently featuring an 8-31 combined record), to give the Saints a chance at home field advantage throughout the playoffs. If that happens, keeping in mind the results against the St. Louis Rams in 2000 (a 31–28 win over the heavily favored defending Super Bowl champions) and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006 (a 27–24 victory against what was at that time the hottest team in football on a six-game win streak), the Saints could be poised for a very real chance for their first Super Bowl appearance. At that point, the jubilation Saints fans are now feeling may transform on a municipal level into the sort of limitless celebration that can only be found when a decades-long unrequited love is finally fulfilled.