February 7, 2011

2010: Saints Finally Reach the Top, Defeat Colts in Super Bowl XLIV

The New Orleans Saints had endured a long road to respectability after joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1967. They didn’t have so much as a .500 season until 1979 and didn’t post a winning record or appear in the playoffs until 1987. The Saints spent a year on the road in 2005 after heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina forced them to abandon their home stadium while it underwent repair and raised questions as to the franchise’s future in New Orleans. But they bounced back in ’06 to advance to the NFC Championship game, losing to the Bears. After dipping to 8-8 in 2008, they rebounded strongly in ’09 and, on February 7, 2010, reached the highest point of all as they met the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints, in their fourth season under Head Coach Sean Payton, featured an explosive offense led by QB Drew Brees (pictured above), who led the NFL with a 109.6 passer rating, a record 70.6 completion percentage, and 34 touchdown passes while throwing for 4388 yards and giving up only 12 interceptions. The receiving corps was a very talented one, led by 6’4”, 225-pound WR Marques Colston and including deep threats Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson. The running game consisted of a committee of backs led by RB Pierre Thomas. The defense, long a problem area, responded to the leadership of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and featured DE Will Smith, MLB Jonathan Vilma, CB Tracy Porter, and FS Darren Sharper.

New Orleans won its first 13 games of the 2009 regular season before finally succumbing to the Cowboys and ended up losing the last three contests to finish at 13-3. Having won the NFC South, if on something of a down note, the Saints crushed Arizona in the Divisional playoff and then got past the Vikings in overtime to win the NFC Championship.

Indianapolis, led by first-year Head Coach Jim Caldwell, was in the postseason for the eighth straight year and had won the Super Bowl following the 2006 season. As had been the case throughout, the key player was QB Peyton Manning, who threw for 4500 yards and 33 touchdowns, and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the tenth time. WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark both caught 100 passes and were Pro Bowl choices as well. RB Joseph Addai led a decent, if not spectacular, group of runners. The aggressive defense contained ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, MLB Gary Brackett, and FS Antoine Bethea.

Like the Saints, the Colts started off strong with 14 wins in ’09 before losing the last two to top the AFC South at 14-2. They defeated the Ravens in the Divisional round and outdistanced the spirited New York Jets in the AFC Championship game.

There was a crowd of 74,059 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami as New Orleans received the opening kickoff but went three-and-out in the first series. The Colts came out fast, utilizing a no-huddle offense through much of their initial drive. Manning started off with an 18-yard completion to Clark and was successful on a total of six short passes as Indianapolis went 53 yards in 11 plays, ending with a 38-yard field goal by Matt Stover to take the early lead.

The Saints got to midfield on their next possession and Thomas Morstead’s punt seemingly pinned the Colts down at their four yard line. But once again Indianapolis put together a solid drive, going 96 yards in 11 plays to score. In addition to Manning’s passes, Addai ran effectively, with 53 yards on just three carries. WR Pierre Garcon hauled in a Manning pass for a 19-yard touchdown and the Colts led by 10-0 after one quarter of play.

New Orleans drove into Indianapolis territory, helped by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, but after reaching the 22 yard line, Brees was sacked by Freeney for a seven-yard loss on a third-and-three play. The Saints settled for a 46-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.

Following a short possession by the Colts, New Orleans again mounted a long drive. Brees hit on six straight passes, including 21 yards to WR Lance Moore and 27 yards to Colston, to get down to the Indianapolis three. Following a pass to Moore that gained nothing, a false start penalty moved the Saints back five yards, but they regained all of that and more when Thomas ran seven yards to the one. However, runs by RB Mike Bell on third down and Thomas on fourth down failed to penetrate into the end zone, and the Colts took over on downs.

Indianapolis was only able to get out to the ten yard line and punted. Brees fired a pass to Henderson for a 19-yard gain and two more completions got the ball down to the Colts’ 26. Hartley kicked a 44-yard field goal as the half ended, and the score stood at 10-6.

Kicking off to start the second half, the Saints surprised the Colts with Morstead executing an onside kick that bounced off the hands of Indianapolis WR Hank Baskett and was recovered by New Orleans safety Chris Reis. Starting at their own 42, the Saints made the most of the gamble and scored in six plays. Five of those plays were completions by Brees, including a 16-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Thomas (pictured below) that put New Orleans ahead, 13-10.

The Colts came right back, however, again going into a no-huddle offense and driving 76 yards in ten plays, converting a fourth-and-two situation along the way. Manning completed five passes, the longest of 27 yards to Clark, and Addai ran the final four yards for a TD that put Indianapolis back in front at 17-13.

The Saints responded with another scoring drive, with Hartley connecting for his third field goal, this time from 47 yards out. The third quarter ended with the Colts in front by a point.

Indianapolis again drove into New Orleans territory to begin the fourth quarter, but after reaching the 33 yard line, Stover missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. The Saints moved methodically down the field, with Brees hitting on seven consecutive short passes that included a two-yard touchdown to TE Jeremy Shockey. An attempted two-point conversion failed, but New Orleans was once more in front at 24-17 with just under six minutes left to play.

Starting at their own 30, the Colts again went into a no-huddle offense and Manning was successful on four of six passes to get to the New Orleans 31. But in a third-and-five situation, Manning threw a pass intended for Wayne that was instead intercepted by CB Tracy Porter, who returned it 74 yards for a touchdown (pictured below). The game was effectively over.

The Colts drove to the New Orleans five, but a fourth-and-goal pass was incomplete with 34 seconds left. The Saints, for so long a NFL doormat, were champions by a score of 31-17.

Indianapolis held the edge in total yards (432 to 332) and first downs (23 to 20). However, they suffered the only turnover of the game on the interception, and it was a huge one.

The game’s MVP, Drew Brees, completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two TDs. Marques Colston caught 7 passes for 83 yards and Devery Henderson also had 7 receptions, for 63 yards. Pierre Thomas, who led a rushing attack that accumulated just 51 yards, gained 30 yards in nine carries and also pulled in 6 passes for 51 yards and a TD.

For the Colts, Peyton Manning went to the air 45 times with 31 completions for 333 yards that included a TD and the interception. Dallas Clark caught 7 passes for 86 yards and Joseph Addai added 7 receptions for 58 yards in addition to pacing the running attack with 77 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts.

“Four years ago, who ever thought this would be happening when 85 percent of the city was under water?” said Drew Brees afterward. “Most people left not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back, or if the organization would ever come back. We just all looked at one another and said, ‘We are going to rebuild together. We are going to lean on each other.’ This is the culmination in all that belief.”

It was a great moment for the franchise and its fans, and for the quarterback who had signed with New Orleans as a free agent in the wake of the dreadful ’05 season.

While both clubs struggled at times in 2010, they returned to the postseason. However, they both were eliminated early, losing in the Wild Card playoff round.