Saints' 'season of firsts' blossoms into victory

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. --- The New Orleans Saints have never experienced anything like this.

Sean Payton: After his team's win, the Saints' head coach said a prayer of thanks for his team and his chance to coach in New Orleans.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Sean Payton: After his team's win, the Saints' head coach said a prayer of thanks for his team and his chance to coach in New Orleans.

Before this season, the Saints had only eight winning seasons -- and two playoff victories -- in their previous 42 years combined. New Orleans had to win three postseason games over three great quarterbacks -- Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning -- to win the title this season.

The last quarterback standing was Drew Brees, who joined coach Sean Payton in 2006 with the idea of transforming the Saints into champions for a region needing widespread rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

That was easier said than done, but in their fourth season together, they did it. Brees was chosen the Super Bowl MVP after Sunday night's 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. After that, his only remaining challenge was believing he'd actually pulled it off.

"I had to wake up this morning and turn to my wife and say, 'Did yesterday really happen?' " Brees said at a news conference Monday in Fort Lauderdale.

"Our victory last night was the culmination of four years of hard work, fighting through a lot of adversity, ups and downs and, more importantly than that, representing a city that has been through so much," he said.

"Along the way, people have asked me so many times, 'Do you look at it as a burden or extra pressure? Do you feel like you're carrying the weight of the city on your team's shoulders?' I said, 'No, not at all. We look at it as a responsibility.' Our city, our fans, gave us strength and we owe this to them. ... There's no people that you would want to win for more than the city of New Orleans."

As Brees spoke, Payton sat off to the side, elbows on his knees, face buried in his hands. When it was his turn to speak, he recounted Vince Lombardi's grandson, Saints assistant Joe Lombardi, posing for a photo with the trophy bearing his last name.

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

Payton said when all was quiet in the team hotel around 3 a.m., he offered a prayer of thanks for his team and his experience in New Orleans, where he became a head coach for the first time in 2006. The city was still largely in ruin then.

The theme for the Saints in 2009 became: A season of firsts. They opened with their first 13-game winning streak, which earned them a first No. 1 seeding in the NFC playoffs. That led to a first home NFC title game, then a first Super Bowl.

Their run to the Super Bowl captured the attention of football fans everywhere. The game was watched by more than 106 million people, surpassing the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H to become the most-watched program in U.S. television history.

Commissioner Roger Goodell called this Super Bowl "clearly more than a game.

"I keep thinking of the word 'magical,' " he said. "When you think about the relationship between the Saints and the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans, it was more than just a football game and more than just a football team. The hopes, the dreams and the struggles of that community were all reflected in that football team. It was a great night for the people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region."

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