Saints move heaven and earth to reach first Super Bowl

Ball on the ground . . .

Ball on the ground . . .

The ticket to Miami was the ball on the ground.

The New Orleans Saints forced five turnovers -- and turned the NFL on its head -- on Sunday when they earned their first trip to the Super Bowl with a 31-28 overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings at the Superdome.

Shrugging off 42 years of futility, the Saints finally reached the NFC mountaintop when Garrett Hartley kicked a 40-yard field goal on the opening possession of overtime.

The win turned back the Vikings and 40-year-old Brett Favre, who was aiming to become the only “hired-gun” quarterback to lead his team to a championship in his first season with a team.

“Brett Favre is a great story,” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said, “but the New Orleans Saints are a better story.”

With a record crowd of 71,276 chanting the team mantra “Who Dat! Who Dat!” the Saints secured their date with destiny -- and with the Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7 in South Florida.

“It was as loud as I’ve ever heard it in the dome today,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who threw three touchdown passes in a back-and-forth shootout. “It seems like it’s only getting louder.”

The victory is especially meaningful to a city, state and region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina just a few years ago. The franchise has provided a glimmer of hope for untold thousands in the Gulf Coast region.

“The hope and everything that this team gives all these people who have struggled, I have not seen anything like this in any other NFL city,” said Louisiana native Terry Bradshaw, a Pittsburgh Steelers legend who now works as an analyst for Fox and was unapologetically rooting for the Saints.

Minnesota had a very realistic chance to win. With a battered and hobbled Favre under center, and the score tied at 28, Favre drove his team to the fringes of field-goal range in the waning moments of regulation.

But with 19 seconds to play, he threw an across-the-body pass for Sidney Rice over the middle of the field that was intercepted by cornerback Tracy Porter. It was the fifth turnover for the Vikings, who had two passes picked off and lost three of six fumbles.

The Saints didn’t have enough time to move into scoring range in regulation, but they won the overtime coin flip and never surrendered the ball. It was the third NFC title game to go into overtime, coming two years after the New York Giants beat Favre’s Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

In the extra period, Brees directed a 10-play, 39-yard drive that was aided by two Vikings penalties -- and kept alive by a two-yard plunge by Pierre Thomas on fourth and one at the Minnesota 43.

The packed house erupted when Hartley boomed his kick through the uprights with 10:19 on the clock, ending decades of frustration and heartache.

The Saints have shed the dubious distinction of being among the five NFL teams that have never made it to a Super Bowl. That group now consists of Cleveland, Houston, Detroit and Jacksonville.

Outside the Saints’ locker room after the game was Pat Swilling, a longtime star defensive end for New Orleans who played on some teams that were good, but just not good enough.

“I saw [former linebacker] Rickey Jackson outside and he had tears in his eyes -- and I have them in mine,” Swilling said. “This is what we fought for. All those great years we had and we never got over the hump. To see these guys get over it is just wonderful, man.”

To prepare his team for this landmark occasion -- New Orleans’ first chance to play host to an NFC championship game -- Saints Coach Sean Payton had Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott talk to his players. It brought things full circle because Lott, a former San Francisco 49ers and USC star, had spoken to the Saints before an exhibition game last summer.

As serious as they were about winning, the Vikings took a more jocular approach to their pregame motivation. They brought in “General” Larry Platt, a goofy “American Idol” reject, who rapped and danced to his song “Pants on the Ground” at a meeting Sunday morning in the team hotel.

A week earlier, after the Vikings beat the Cowboys, Favre had led his team in a chanting version of the song, which mocks youngsters for “looking like fools” with low-slung pants and caps turned sideways.

Lott’s theme was more straightforward: The Saints should be able to “smell greatness,” a phrase they would later memorialize on T-shirts.

“We all want to be inspired in our lives, and these guys have inspired all of us,” Lott said after the game. “Think about the year that they’ve had, what they’ve gone through, and what they’ve tried to achieve for this community. This is bigger than us. It’s not just a game.”