Coming up with a motivational tool is huge for NFL coaches, particularly on the eve of an important game. Last Saturday night, before the biggest game in the 43-year history of the Saints, New Orleans coach Sean Payton produced a doozy at the team's downtown hotel. As the players settled in for their last team meeting before the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, the lights dimmed, Aerosmith's Dream On started playing at a Superdome-decibel level, and on the video screen at the front of the room great moments in sports history went by in rapid-fire order.
Babe Ruth homering, Michael Jordan scoring, Pete Maravich floating, Roberto Clemente fielding, Tiger Woodsfist-pumping, Eddie Robinson coaching, Wayne Gretzky scoring, Jim Valvano leaping, Larry Bird shooting, Muhammad Ali punching, the Bears Super Bowl--shuffling, Doug Flutie passing, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team celebrating—on and on, as goose bumps rose to the pulsating chorus: "Dream on, dream on, dream on...."
And when the lights came up, there was Ronnie Lott, a four-time Super Bowl champion. Payton had invited the Hall of Fame defensive back to speak to his players before the season, at which time Lott told the Saints he could "smell greatness in the room." smell greatness T-shirts were promptly distributed to the players. Now Lott stood before them holding one of the purple baseball bats each player had received that night as a reminder to hit the Vikings hard on Sunday. Lott tapped the bat in his hand, staring intently at the players, and said, "What I wouldn't give to have the chance to go out there, just one more time, to do what you're going to do tomorrow. To become a champion again."
"It's something I'll never forget," free safety Darren Sharper, 34, would say later. "Ronnie's the epitome of greatness in our game, and for so many reasons on and off the field, this was our chance for greatness—to seize the moment. It may never come again."
Twenty-four hours later it was carpe diem for New Orleans. The unforgettable 31--28 victory over the Vikings that sent the Saints to their first Super Bowl won't be stored in the NFL Films vault for its artistry, but it'll go on the top shelf for take-your-breath-away moments as well as mystifying ones. It surely was the first game in league history to be decided in part by a penalty for 12 men in the offensive huddle. It featured 40-year-old Brett Favre getting beaten like Rocky Balboa by the New Orleans defense, playing his guts out and throwing yet another unfathomable interception that cost his team a chance to win a landmark game. It was the perfect illustration of will and drive winning out over what was probably a better team and certainly a more careless one.
What's more, the triumph capped a lovefest between the city and the team that began in 2006 with the hiring of Payton and the signing of quarterback--community institution Drew Brees just months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and left tenuous the Saints' future in the town. "This is for everybody in the city who had homes that used to be wet," an emotional Payton said after the game. "This is for New Orleans."
What followed was one of the wildest celebrations (non--Mardi Gras category) in the history of the city. A police officer on crowd-control duty said the Saints "are the cause of everything good here right now." One fan, 33-year-old Brian Boyles of New Orleans, said, "This is a unifying moment I don't think any of us will ever forget. For so long it seemed like this wasn't a real franchise. I remember when Mike Ditka did the press conference in Ricky Williams dreads, and we were a joke. Now we're all just shocked that we have a really good team."
It wasn't karma or voodoo that put the team on the path to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, where the Saints will play the AFC-champion Colts on Feb. 7. It was the four-year union of Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. In the win over Minnesota, running back Pierre Thomas (99 rushing-receiving yards and two touchdowns) and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele—a pair of undrafted free agents picked up in 2007 and '08, respectively—played smart and physical in critical moments. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, thought to be damaged goods when he was acquired in a trade with the Jets in '08, had a monster game (five tackles, an interception, two passes deflected, one forced fumble, one fumble recovered and heady signal-calling). And, of course, there was Brees, who didn't have one of his typically sharp games but did throw three touchdown passes, had zero turnovers and was sacked only once by a ferocious pass rush. "I was very specific about my goals for this game," Brees said outside the locker room afterward. "Taking care of the football was Number 1 for me today, and if I could do that against this defense, I thought we'd have a good chance to win."
Brees looked out on the field at Favre moving the Vikings and scoring 28 points through the first 55 minutes and enjoyed the quarterback duel, but he wasn't happy just to be a part of it. "I'm staring out at Brett—one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and one of the most competitive quarterbacks ever—and I just thought, It's [the Saints'] time. It's our destiny, for our team and our city. This is one of the reasons I came here, obviously. And we had this feeling: We weren't going to be denied."
But they almost were. With the game tied at 28 and almost five minutes to play, the Saints went three-and-out for the seventh time (tying a season-high for the top-scoring team in the league), allowing the Vikings to go to work at their 21 with 2:37 left. A hobbled Favre, who had been taken down high-low by Ayodele and defensive end Bobby McCray late in the third quarter ("I thought I broke my ankle," Favre would say later), then led his team on what would prove to be a bizarre final series of their season.