NEW ORLEANS -- Three months ago, it was just a nice story about a team trying to help a city recovering from tragedy trying to feel good again.
The New Orleans Saints were a Novacaine of sorts to the Big Easy, numbing the pain of all the hurricane horror by returning to play in the building that became the central point of it all. When they beat the Atlanta Falcons on a Monday night in Week 3, we all thought it was some divine intervention making it happen -- this feisty little bunch with the new coach putting it all together for one night, but soon to be returned to reality.
Three months later, we now know we were all wrong.
|No. 25 has become No. 1 in the hearts of Saints' fans. (AP)|
This feel-good story has become so much more. It's about a team that might be able to do the improbable and win it all.
As they closed out their impressive regular season Sunday with a meaningless 31-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Saints head to the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, but there is mounting belief around the league that they may be the best team in the conference, better even than the top-seed Bears.
The only thing that some might say can stop them is their past. The Saints have won one playoff game in their history, overshadowed by years and years of futility.
"There is no curse or anything like that," Saints running back Reggie Bush said. "We're one of the top competitors, not just in the NFC but in the whole league. You can't overlook us because some people didn't even pick us to win our division."
Most experts had the Saints picked to finish last in the NFC South, but in two weeks they'll be playing in the divisional round of the playoffs, two victories away from a Super Bowl.
They have an MVP-candidate in quarterback Drew Brees, an explosive offense led by the best play-caller in the NFL in coach Sean Payton and a defense that has far exceeded anybody's expectations, including many inside the organization -- and many in this city.
Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, the city is just now getting back on its feet. There are still signs of the horror everywhere, even next to the Superdome, where the Saints have performed their high-flying act this season. That's the site of the former Hyatt Hotel, where the windows are still gutted and the hotel not yet open.
That heartache is why this city has embraced the Saints even more than it did before Katrina. When Joe Horn hosts his weekly radio show on Thursdays in a French Quarter seafood joint, it's packed with fans jockeying for position. It wasn't that way before Katrina and it wasn't that way early this season before the Saints became more than just a cute story.