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Top story No. 1: Saints win first Super Bowl

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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New Orleans Saints radio play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson expressed perfectly the overall sentiment of just about every New Orleanian when kicker Garrett Hartley booted the game-winning field goal in the NFC Championship Game.

"Hahaaaa! Pigs have flown! Hell has froze over! The Saints are on their way to the Super Bowl!" Henderson shouted during the broadcast with a mixture of near-tearful joy and disbelief as the kick flew through the uprights.

Simply advancing to Super Bowl XLIV would have been enough for most Saints fans, considering everyone remembers the hell on Earth that was post-Hurricane Katrina more than four years earlier. Winning the Super Bowl over NFL giant Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in dramatic fashion made the world appreciate the Saints' Hollywood ending story and why the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV championship earned CBSSports.com's top sports story of 2010.

By now you know the Saints' story. But in a story like this, there are so many pieces to the triumphant puzzle:

  Tracy Porter: A cornerback who grew up an hour away in Port Allen, La., as a life-long Saints fan. All he did was intercept an ill-advised Brett Favre pass as the Vikings were well on their way to attempt a game-winning field goal in regulation in the NFC Championship Game. He topped it off by outsmarting Manning on a fourth-quarter pass play, stepping in front of Reggie Wayne and turning it into a 74-yard interception return for a score. An NFL all-time highlight kind of a play.

"We know the people of New Orleans -- the people of Louisiana, period -- they're behind this team," Porter said less than an hour after his pick-six of Manning that will forever intoxicate the Saints' fan base. "When we're not doing well and down, it's almost like they're down. This team, I have to say, this team means more to the people of New Orleans than I can say any team in the NFL. No one is behind their team as much as the people of New Orleans."

 Hartley: A wet-behind-the-ears kicker who could have easily been watching from home. The NFL suspended Hartley for four games for testing positive for a banned substance. But Sean Payton uncharacteristically stuck with Hartley after having a quick trigger for canning kickers. All Hartley did was kick the Saints into the Super Bowl and drilled three 40-plus yarders against the Colts to help win the Super Bowl.

"There's times in everyone's career when things are just not going to be perfect," Hartley said shortly after his NFC championship-winning kick. "Honestly for a while, and when you look at my suspension, to come back. ... It's all a learning experience. I'm 23 years old and I have a lot to learn. Just coming out here and trying to make up for my last mistake. I had to focus on it and see myself envision it was the most important part about today."

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 Tom Benson: The Saints owner went from being demonized for trying to keep the Saints away from New Orleans after Katrina to being glorified for bringing them back and hiring the right people to turn them into champions. The depression of losing the Saints would have been more damaging to New Orleanians than the jubilation of the Saints winning the Super Bowl. In retrospect, Benson probably gives thanks every day that the league nudged him to return to New Orleans.

"This shows the whole world we're back! We're back! The whole world, we're back!" Benson boasted at midfield at Sun Life Stadium as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

Benson was wrong, though. New Orleans was already back. It just took the Super Bowl title for the world to see that New Orleans was back and better than ever.

 Sean Payton: The offensive-minded coach who found the right fit on the other side of the football in hiring guru Gregg Williams to coach the defense and surrendered part of his salary to do so (Benson paid Payton back after the Super Bowl). He turned every right switch during the Saints' 13-0 start. He re-signed all-time Saints great Deuce McAllister as a morale booster the day before the NFC divisional game as the Saints entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.

Then the ultimate "Ambush" when he called for an onside kick coming out of halftime in the Super Bowl to completely swing the momentum away from the Colts. The gutsiest play ever called in NFL history. There's no argument.

"Four years ago there were holes in this roof," Payton said to the crowd in the Superdome after the NFC title game. "Fans in this city and this region deserve this, I'm just proud to be part of it. It's pretty special for the city and well-deserved."

Saints fans, football fans, non-fans -- all will remember Drew Brees hoisting son Baylen after the Saints' Super Bowl victory. (Getty Images)  
Saints fans, football fans, non-fans -- all will remember Drew Brees hoisting son Baylen after the Saints' Super Bowl victory. (Getty Images)  
  Drew Brees: The quarterback that no other team had faith in after a 100 percent tear of his right labrum and a 50 percent tear in his right rotator cuff in the final week of the 2005 season while with San Diego. It's fitting the Saints were the ones to take the leap of faith.

Brees brought the Saints back to life with the team's best season up to that point in 2006 when New Orleans advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where it lost to Chicago. Everyone knew Brees was on the brink of the elite group of quarterbacks alongside Manning and Tom Brady after huge statistical seasons in 2007 and 2008. The problem was the Saints missed the playoffs in both seasons.

Then came 2009 and you know the rest. Forget his superb regular season. Look at his postseason numbers: 732 passing yards, 70.6 percent completion percentage, eight touchdowns, zero interceptions, 117.0 passer rating. He outplayed three Hall of Fame passers -- Kurt Warner, Favre and Manning -- in three consecutive games. Brees left his most brilliant of the three performances for Super Bowl XLIV, where he threw for 288 yards and two TDs while completing a sick 82.1 percent of his passes. Not even Manning and all his brilliance could touch that as Brees made his leap to elite status by earning Super Bowl MVP honors.

And who can forget Brees' candid moment with his son, Baylen, on the victory platform as they reached for the confetti? An instant and everlasting feel-good moment.

"We played for so much more than just ourselves," Brees said after being named Super Bowl MVP. "We played for the entire Gulf Coast region. We played for the entire 'Who Dat' Nation."

On the field, then Saints linebacker Scott Fujita probably said it best following the NFC title game: "Brett Favre is a great story. But the New Orleans Saints are a better story."

I can go on and on about moments and players that made the Saints such a unique story. Yet it's the underlying notion that the Saints played for something bigger that makes their run to winning Super Bowl XLIV most unique. They played for a city that care forgot four years earlier.

Take it from myself as a native New Orleanian, this title meant more for this town and this Gulf South region than I can properly give it credit for. I don't think I'm off based by saying this but I'll do it anyway: No professional team championship will mean more to its fan base than what the Saints accomplished by winning Super Bowl XLIV.

It goes beyond sports.

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