September 25, 2010

2006: Saints Defeat Falcons in Return to Superdome

When the New Orleans Saints hosted the Atlanta Falcons at the Louisiana Superdome on September 25, 2006, it marked not just the first home game of the season for the Saints but a return to a city and stadium that the franchise had been forced to abandon for a year due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

The aftermath of the powerful storm in September of 2005 had, of course, been devastating for the city as a whole. The Superdome had sustained significant damage, and there were questions as to whether the Saints would return. For the team, it had meant a season on the road in which home games were split between San Antonio and Baton Rouge. They went 3-13 in ‘05, losing 11 of their last 12 games, and finished at the bottom of the NFC South.

The club that took the field in 2006 had been transformed in the offseason. There was a new head coach, Sean Payton, replacing Jim Haslett. There was also a new quarterback, Drew Brees, who had been signed away from the San Diego Chargers as a free agent. Star RB Deuce McAllister, who had been lost five games into the 2005 season with an ACL injury, was back healthy and joined by the Heisman-winning first round draft pick out of USC, Reggie Bush.

The Saints were already 2-0, having beaten Cleveland and Green Bay on the road, as they took the field for the Monday Night Football contest before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 70,003 at the refurbished Superdome. They were hosting their arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who had also won their first two games in impressive fashion under third-year Head Coach Jim Mora Jr.

It didn’t take long for the Saints to take command. Atlanta had the first possession of the game and went three-and-out. The ensuing punt by Michael Koenen was blocked by safety and special teams standout Steve Gleason (pictured above) and recovered in the end zone for a touchdown by CB Curtis Deloach. It was the first touchdown given up in the ’06 season by the Falcons.

Atlanta followed up with a nine-play drive that yielded a 26-yard field goal by Morten Andersen. But after the two clubs traded punts, the Falcons gave up another TD when the Saints went 80 yards in eight plays capped by a double-reverse in which WR Devery Henderson ran for an 11-yard touchdown. New Orleans was up 14-3 at the end of the first quarter and in command the rest of the way.

John Carney kicked field goals of 37 and 51 yards in the second quarter, while the closest Atlanta came to scoring was a 25-yard field goal attempt by Andersen that was blocked. Carney booted a 20-yard field goal to cap the Saints’ first time-consuming possession of the second half, and that provided the final margin of 23-3.

The New Orleans defense didn’t let the Falcons offense get closer than the 31 yard line during the second half. They sacked Atlanta QB Michael Vick five times and held the Falcons to 229 yards (the Saints rolled up 326).

Drew Brees had a solid if unspectacular outing, completing 20 of 28 passes for 191 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Deuce McAllister led the running game with 81 yards on 19 carries while Reggie Bush ran the ball 13 times for 53 yards. Marques Colston was the leading receiver with 7 catches for 97 yards.

For the Falcons, Michael Vick was held to just 12 completions in 31 attempts for 137 yards, although none were picked off; Vick was also Atlanta’s leading rusher with 57 yards on six carries. Alge Crumpler led the receivers with 5 catches for 49 yards.

Afterward Brees said “From the moment I signed with the Saints, I was looking forward to this. It was a great night. It was something we’ll never forget.” Owner Tom Benson, who had taken heat for suggesting that the Saints might relocate, danced off the field with parasol in hand to the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. A game ball was dedicated to the people of New Orleans.

The Saints went on to win the NFC South with a 10-6 record and advance farther into the postseason than any preceding team in franchise history, finally succumbing to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game. Atlanta dropped to 7-9 to finish third in the division, costing Mora his job.

New Orleans led the NFL in team rushing with 6264 yards as McAllister ground out 1057 yards on 244 carries (4.3 average) with 10 TDs and Bush added 565 yards on 155 attempts with six scores. Bush also caught 88 passes for 742 yards and two TDs and averaged 7.7 yards on 28 punt returns with another touchdown.

Drew Brees (pictured below) led the league in passing yards with 4418 and had the best passer rating in the NFC (96.2). His 26 touchdown passes ranked third in the NFL, as did his 8.0 yards-per-attempt.

Michael Vick became the first quarterback to rush for a thousand yards (1039) with a league-leading 8.4 yards-per-carry.