The New Orleans Saints’ most amazing and memorable touchdown reception of the season wasn’t a diving catch by Marques Colston, a one-handed snare by Robert Meachem or a Superman plunge by Reggie Bush.
It’s the reception the Saints get at the airport every time they have touched down after a road game.
Fans gather by the thousands -- the crowd growing with each victory its 10-0 team stockpiles -- lining the path back to downtown. Even for a city that cherishes its parades, this one has taken on jaw-dropping proportions.
“There’s just so much excitement,” said quarterback Drew Brees, a most-valuable-player candidate who has helped the Saints to their best start in franchise history. “If anybody deserves a winner, it’s this city. Just such great, loyal fans, fans that have been through so many tough times -- not only in their personal lives and the city post-Katrina, but also as fans of the Saints. Lot more downs than ups.”
Not this year, when so far the downs have been as scarce as those paper-bag-wearing boo birds who once populated the Superdome seats. Now, the team boasts the NFL’s top-ranked offense and a reliable defense, making the Saints even more well-rounded than Indianapolis, the league’s other undefeated team.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the Saints set whatever records there are,” said New England Coach Bill Belichick, whose Patriots play at New Orleans tonight. “I can’t think of too many teams -- I can’t think of any really -- that are any more explosive than this team is. I’ve talked about the Rams, I’ve talked about the Chargers in the early ‘80s. But these guys can run with anybody.”
Like most coaches, Belichick doesn’t spare the praise when talking about an upcoming opponent. So to hear him heap it on the Saints isn’t surprising. But it’s worth noting that Brees’ team is piling up the points and the yards at the same pace as the 2007 Patriots, the only team to finish a 16-game regular season undefeated.
In fact, the Saints have scored fractionally more points (36.9, compared with 36.8 for the ’07 Patriots) and are less than 10 yards behind in average yards (411.2-420.5).
A perfect regular season isn’t the ultimate goal, of course, and at the moment isn’t even a topic the Saints care to entertain. They have their sights set higher: the first Super Bowl for a city that has played host to so many. The players even wear black T-shirts that read “SB44" in silver, with mantras on the back such as “Finish Strong” and “Smell Greatness.”
It’s common for teams to quietly employ those motivational tactics and, in truth, the Saints weren’t too happy when word of the T-shirts first got out. But there’s a belief in their locker room that this team is destined to go further than the 2006 version that lost in a snowy NFC championship game at Chicago.
“They’re totally different teams,” Brees said of those Saints and these ones. “Maybe as we got rolling in ’06, toward the end of the season, we started feeling like, ‘Man, this is our year.’ But early on in ’06, we were horrendous in the preseason. So by the time we got to the regular season, we were just trying to win a game.
“This year, as we were trying to put this thing together in the off-season, it was like, ‘Man, we got something, and now we’ve got to just go out and make it happen.’ As you can see, it’s worked out.”
Brees knows, though, that starting a season 10-0 is no guarantee of postseason success. The last three teams that did so -- the 2005 Colts, 2007 Patriots and 2008 Tennessee Titans -- came away with precisely zero Lombardi trophies.
And the Saints’ path to perfection still has some significant barricades, maybe the biggest of them coming tonight. New Orleans also faces all three division opponents again, and has a Saturday night game against Dallas on Dec. 19.
It might even be better for the long-term success of these Saints to lose a game, seeing as that would remove the potential distraction and mounting pressure of trying to maintain an unblemished record. Besides, New Orleans almost has the NFC South locked up. The Saints’ magic number is two -- any combination of New Orleans wins and/or Atlanta losses equaling two will give the Saints their fourth division title.
The home team’s focus now is to make sure the road to the Super Bowl runs through New Orleans. And if it does, you can be assured of one thing:
That roadside will be standing room only.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
The New England Patriots will face the undefeated New Orleans Saints (10-0) tonight, two weeks after facing the undefeated Indianapolis Colts (8-0 at the time). It will mark only the fifth time since 1970 that a team has played two games against teams with records of 8-0 or better in the same season (*won Super Bowl):
*--* YEAR TEAM
OPPONENTS (W-L) 1972 NEW ENGLAND
MIAMI* (8-0) PATRIOTS
MIAMI (11-0) 1990 LOS ANGELES
NY GIANTS* (8-0) RAMS
SAN FRANCISCO (10-0) 1998 SAN DIEGO
DENVER* (8-0) CHARGERS
DENVER (11-0) 1998 KANSAS CITY
DENVER* (9-0) CHIEFS
DENVER (12-0) 2009 NEW ENGLAND
INDIANAPOLIS (8-0) PATRIOTS
NEW ORLEANS (10-0) *--*